Last week, the Publishing Triangle held their annual awards ceremony celebrating only the best in LGBTQ written works. Hosted this year in New York City, The Publishing Triangle Awards recognizes excellence in Queer fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and Trans literature. Soule had the pleasure of interviewing one of the winning authors, Joe Okonkwo, who was this year’s recipient of the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. Primarily a short story writer, Okonkwo was recognized for his very first novel, Jazz Moon set in the Harlem Renaissance and the Paris Jazz Age.
Congratulations, again on being awarded for your new book, Jazz Moon. How did it feel to receive the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction at this year’s Publishing Triangle Awards? In a word: Wonderful! I felt a strong sense of accomplishment just getting the book published, but to win a prestigious award, to have earned that recognition is really validating. I don’t write with the intention of getting prizes, but the recognition is invigorating nonetheless. So much of being a writer is receiving constant rejection, so to receive the opposite…
Can you tell us a little about Jazz Moon, how long it’s taken you to complete it, and what your writing process looked like? Jazz Moon started as a short story in 2004. I had wanted to write a story set in the Harlem Renaissance for a while. I found out about a short story contest and saw that as my opportunity to do it. The word limit was 1,500 and I thought, Oh, yeah, I can write this story in 1,500 words. Well, twelve years and 93,000 words later, it was published. As far as the process: I didn’t really get good and focused on it until I entered the Creative Writing MFA program at City College of New York in 2011. Prior to that, I was just working on Jazz Moon off and on. Mostly off. Then I turned 40 in 2010. I went to Mexico City to celebrate. I spent my birthday in bed in my hotel room, depressed. I felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything. Later that year I made a decision to get serious about writing. I’m so glad I did. Jazz Moon was published last year—when I was 46. There is such a thing as success in your second act.
What was your inspiration for writing Jazz Moon, and how do you think it’s been received by readers and the queer community so far? I’ve always been fascinated with the Harlem Renaissance. The jazz. The literature. The politics. My love of jazz was absolutely an inspiration, and my reverence for black entertainers of that era and what they had to do to have a career. It was during the Harlem Renaissance that people realized for the first time that black was beautiful—and marketable. Such a culturally rich time. And also a very difficult time for blacks because of poverty and virulent racism. And I think that difficulty is part of why I love that era so much: it shows how strong blacks are, what we can accomplish even in the face of so many horrible obstacles. There’s a whole lot to admire about that era and the people who made it happen.
As far as the book’s reception: It’s been very positive, I’m happy to say. Readers have reached out to me on social media to tell me how much they like the book. I’ve made new friends as a direct result of this book. There really aren’t that many black gay literary novels out there, and people have reached out to me to express their excitement about Jazz Moon.
How is Jazz Moon similar and different from other queer works of fiction out there, and do you think there is a demand for queer fiction in the digital age? It’s similar in that it deals with a lot of issues that many gay novels deal with: coming out; shame; the quest for self-worth and self-acceptance; sex; relationships. What makes Jazz Moon different, I think, is that it’s set in a bygone era and it does deal with aspects of racism that we don’t necessarily read about very often—i.e. that unique brand of French racism, aka Negrophilia. Also, since the protagonist is a poet, there is a good deal of poetry interspersed throughout the story, which I hope won’t turn people off! Queer fiction in the digital age? I think there will always be a demand for literature that speaks to and sheds light on certain kinds of experiences that are different from the mainstream, regardless of the age.
On your website, I noticed you’ve featured a “Jazz Moon Playlist”. Should readers be listening to this as they read the book? Not necessarily. Although I did play some of this music while I wrote, to get “in character” so to speak. I treat jazz as a character in this novel. It’s central to the story. Listening to that playlist will give some historical perspective and help transport you to that world. And you might just fall in love with jazz.
Your work has been mostly geared towards the short story form. What influenced your decision to break out as a novelist? As I said earlier, Jazz Moon started as a short story and just kept going and going. I guess I felt a need to keep exploring that world. Short stories are great, but they only give you a slice. If you want to go deeper, if you want to document a character’s journey, his odyssey, you have to go with a longer form.
Any advice to budding queer writers? The great novelist Ernest Gaines said the six golden rules of writing are: read, read, read, and write, write, write. I think that’s pretty solid advice.