It’s hard to imagine a more scintillating backdrop for a novel than the underground jazz clubs of 1920s Harlem, except perhaps the vibrant discothèques of Paris. Luckily for readers, Joe Okonkwo’s Jazz Moon offers both with plenty of intrigue to spare.
The debut novel explores protagonist Ben’s conflicted sexual identity as he navigates the burgeoning music scene of his adopted home. As the temptation to embrace his desires grows, Ben suddenly finds himself at a crossroads of the unknown—stay in New York with his unexpectedly pregnant wife, or follow his trumpet-player lover to Paris and pursue a bohemian lifestyle as a poet and openly gay man. What follows is a testament to the hardships and highs of finding self-worth in two cities marred by racism, prejudice, and the brutal reality of life as an artist.
Joe and I, another pair of New Yorkers, recently chatted about the nuances of the city nearly a hundred years ago, as well as the quest for self-discovery, creative inspiration, and what it means to build a family when home is so very far away.
The Rumpus: The thing that really struck me about the book is that your setting is almost a character unto itself. Why were you drawn first to 1920s Harlem?
Joe Okonkwo: I’ve always had a thing for the Harlem Renaissance. If I could go back in time and go to any period in history, it would definitely be [then] because there was so much happening. It was such a rich period. It was a difficult period for African-Americans because of racism and lynching and Jim Crow, but it was also a fascinating time because of music and literature and visual arts. Strides were made in the political arena, the civil rights arena, and it was really the first time that anyone realized that black was not only beautiful but marketable. During this period, you saw an explosion of jazz recording stars, and blacks succeeding on Broadway in shows like Shuffle Along, and Josephine Baker made a huge splash in Paris. So, they realized black could sell. That was a huge development. It was a very difficult time for blacks—there were race riots during this period—and I think the Harlem Renaissance was very much a coordinated cultural response to a lot of that. That’s what’s drawn me to it.
Rumpus: And you think it was natural to move the story from Harlem to Paris?
Okonkwo: Yes, absolutely, because what was happening in Paris was very much an extension of what was already happening in Harlem. You had people like Josephine Baker and the black clarinetist Sidney Bechet and people like Paul Robeson going over to Europe, to Paris, and performing lots of shows. Lots of all-black shows went from New York to Paris, like Blackbirds of 1928, which was a huge hit starring a woman named Adelaide Hall. Paris was much more welcoming than the United States. There was racism there but it was a different kind—it was the racism of exoticism and fetishizing blacks as opposed to keeping them out of restaurants. So, we saw Paris welcoming blacks with open arms, partly because they were grateful. Blacks had taken part in WWI, and taken part in the liberation of France, so they were very grateful to African-Americans for that participation. So, yes, it seemed natural to go from Harlem to Paris in the book.
Rumpus: In many ways, when I was reading it, I felt like it was a love letter to those locations, but also a love letter to jazz and the lifestyle it inspires. You even included a playlist in the back of the book. What draws you to this music and was it the main catalyst for creating the story?
Okonkwo: It’s just such a beautiful music. It is art music and it is a genuinely American art form that was born in Africa. I think I have a lot of respect for it, particularly jazz of the 1920s, because it has a kind of raw, unrefined sound compared to the jazz of any other later era. It’s very different, because it was still really being born and coming into its own. What I was trying to do in the novel was not only make the people characters and the setting a character but also make jazz very much a character. It filters throughout the story, and I was trying to capture some of the rhythms and cadences that are present in jazz. I was trying to capture that through the written word.
Rumpus: You included a lot of the work that the characters were doing, like poetry and music lyrics, throughout. I was curious to know if you are in fact a poet or whether you write songs.
Okonkwo: I am definitely not a songwriter. I used to identify primarily as a poet, but no longer. Poetry is hard—it’s a lot harder than prose. I have nothing but respect for poets. The author Erica Jong once said that writing poetry requires being in a higher state of consciousness, and I think that’s absolutely true. I think you need a higher state of consciousness for prose, too, but I think that’s especially true for poetry, and to be able to sustain that, to write poems all the time—that’s hard. If I never write another poem again, that’s fine with me.
Rumpus: I’d love to talk about your main character Ben, because he goes through a remarkable transformation throughout the book, but it takes him years and years to realize both what he ultimately wants and how he relates to the people that he loves. Can you speak a bit about how you wanted that realization to unfold?
Okonkwo: The story is very much an odyssey. Ben is on a personal odyssey, as well as a creative and artistic odyssey. His main goal is to learn to love himself, to learn self-worth and self-value, and find that within himself as opposed to looking for it through other people. A lot of people have a problem with protagonists that are flawed. You hear a lot of people saying, well, your main character is not likable, or he has to be likable, and I disagree. I think the main character has to be compelling and keep the reader turning the page. I think the main characters in our lives are not always pillars of virtue. They don’t always do the right thing or feel the right thing. Ben, in many ways, is a major fuck-up. I was just trying to create a believable person, flaws and all, who keeps working hard to find himself and that self-worth. It’s only when he really starts to find it within himself that he starts to have any kind of contentment or semblance of happiness.
Rumpus: Identity plays a huge part for many of the characters, especially when it comes to artistic endeavors and sexuality. Would you say you created this story foremost as an exploration of an artist’s identity, a gay man’s identity, or a black man’s identity, or are they all equal to the self-examination of your protagonist?
Okonkwo: I think all three. He’s not just one to the exclusion of the others. He’s all at once, all the time, and I think that provides a lot of the conflict. As a black man, he feels he doesn’t quite fit in with other blacks. As a gay person, he doesn’t fit in with most of society, based on society’s attitude towards homosexuality, and of course as an artist he’s enclosed in this universe of his own. So, I think all three of these aspects make him, but they also really conflict him, and I think that’s the case with any artists, especially gay artists of color. Trying to navigate all those different identities becomes tricky and kind of overwhelming.
Rumpus: When you were doing your period research for the book, what did you find most compelling about gay men’s communities in Harlem versus in Paris?
Okonkwo: In Harlem, there was definitely a gay community. Not the way that we think about it today—it was more underground, but it wasn’t that underground. There were gay bars. There was a drag show that was one of the social events of the year in Harlem that straight and gay people would go to and check out the queens’ fabulous costumes. There were buffet flats that I talk about in the novel, that were basically the Harlem Renaissance equivalent of sex clubs. There were big stars like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters and all these huge jazz and blues stars, and it was kind of an open secret that they were bisexual. I wouldn’t say that Harlem was necessarily accepting, but it was more live and let live. Paris is a different animal. Paris is Paris, but even there, homosexuality was very much underground. I found a lot of research on gay bars and gay clubs, but what was interesting was that I found a lot about blacks in Paris and gays in Paris, but nothing about black gays in Paris during that period at least. Obviously, they existed, but there’s not a lot of information there.
Rumpus: I loved the character of the trumpet player Baby Back Johnson, and how he plays such a huge role in allowing Ben to accept more of who he is and begin his life again. But you chose for their relationship to evolve past romance and instead have Ben fall in love with a much humbler Parisian painter. Why, for you, was that important for his character development?
Okonkwo: Ben is the love of so many people’s lives. He’s the love of Baby Back’s life, he’s the love of his wife’s life. With Baby Back, they love each other but they’re just not right for each other. Baby Back needs someone like him—someone who is ruthlessly ambitious, and Ben needs to be with someone more like him. People might need to be with someone who can bring out their best selves, and Ben feels more comfortable with someone humbler because he himself is a little humbler.
Rumpus: Why do you think you decided to have him stay with Sebastian rather than return to New York and find his daughter, Katherine?
Okonkwo: I really struggled with that ending. The book went through several different drafts of that ending. In an earlier draft, Ben was definitely going to leave Paris and go back to the US and try to get his daughter, but I wanted Ben and Sebastian to be together. It just didn’t seem possible to have them be together and for Ben to have his daughter, because this was the 1920s we’re talking about, and it wouldn’t be possible for a black man and a white man to be raising a child together. Certainly, not in the US or in Paris either. Ultimately, I felt it was more important for Ben to be with Sebastian than with his daughter, because he’s not going to find another Sebastian. It’s not going to happen, and he never planned on being a father. It’s not something he ever thought about seriously, not really.
Rumpus: That plot twist at the end was really heartbreaking, as was this whole idea of family throughout the book. I enjoyed the contrast between Ben, who finds out that his parents have passed away quite a while ago, and Sebastian, whose parents are just horrible, heartless people. It does seem like Ben is trying to create a family for himself with Glo and Sebastian and Baby Back.
Okonkwo: I think a lot of gay people go through that—having to kind of cobble together a family or invent a family. So often gay people are either shunned by their families or they don’t feel like they can really speak to their families, or their families don’t accept them fully or at all. Gay people throughout the ages have had to put together their own families of people who aren’t necessarily related to them by blood, but with friends, with pets. Dogs and cats are big in the gay male world, because they don’t judge you. They love you unconditionally, and I think that is what everyone is looking for. So, I think that theme of family—whether it’s a broken family or having to create a family of your own—that’s reflective of the reality that a lot of gays and lesbians feel even today.
Rumpus: There’s a lot of discussion in the book about inspiration and the struggle to find it, whether it’s Ben as a writer or Sebastian as a painter. Where do you personally draw inspiration from and what do you do to when you feel stuck or less prolific in your writing?
Okonkwo: I find inspiration from strong people. Strong, accomplished, disciplined people who are very productive and have done good things, whether that’s other writers or other people of achievement like politicians or designers. People who are creative and productive and disciplined and have made a contribution.
As far as what I do when I get stuck—I just do my best to work through it. I’ve recently gone through a dark period which I’m finally emerging from, and during that period I wasn’t writing, and now I’m trying to get back into writing and it’s difficult. It’s kind of like stretching—if you don’t stretch for a long time and you finally try to stretch again, it’s not all that easy. It takes a while to get back into it. I know that I will. That blockage, knock on wood, is never permanent. It’s just a matter of being patient with myself and continuing to work at it and eventually that creative flow will return. Then it’s a matter of keeping that momentum going. Momentum can be ephemeral, and once you’ve gotten off track… it’s so easy to get off track with writing, with anything, but getting back on track can be a real bitch. [Laughs]
Rumpus: So, would you say that you identify most with Ben who kind of wavers back and forth between bursts of creativity, or his lovers Sebastian and Baby Back who both seem to be able produce and create and be ambitious and inspired almost all the time?
Okonkwo: I didn’t realize this until final rewrites, but a lot of these characters in the book—none of them are based directly on me, not even Ben—but there is a lot of me in all of them. Some of the characters are who I would like to be. I would like to be a Baby Back Johnson, someone who is fearless in achieving his goals and ambitions. I’m an introvert. I’m ambitious, but I’m also not a type-A personality. I wish that I could be aggressive like him. I wish that I could have that constant creative output of a Sebastian. So, it’s both—I’m both Ben, who waivers between bursts of creativity and non-activity, and the other two main characters who always seem to have that flow going. My goal is to be like those two.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that the person who has the most trouble with creativity is the writer and the other two are visual artists or musicians. Maybe that’s a little bit of the writer bias coming out? I think we can all relate to that.
Okonkwo: Maybe. [Laughs]
Author photograph © Theik Smith.