Joe Okonkwo's debut novel is Jazz Moon, which takes place during the Harlem Renaissance. From his Q&A with Deborah Kalb:
Q: How did you come up with your main character, Ben Charles, and with the idea for Jazz Moon?--Marshal Zeringue
A: I had been in love with the Harlem Renaissance for years and had wanted to write a short story set in the period. I found out about a short story contest and decided to write a Harlem story and enter it in the contest.
The word limit was 1,500. I said, "I can write this story in 1,500 words." I never entered that contest because the story ballooned to about 26,000 words. From that, the novel was born.
Ben Charles came about because I was interested in how blackness and gayness intersected with each other and with the Harlem Renaissance, which was a period of explosive black cultural growth and awareness.
During this period in Harlem, homosexuality was taboo and underground, but also very much in the open.
There were gay bars. There was an annual drag bar that was one of the social events of the season and tons of straight people came to see the drag queens in their fabulous get-ups. It was an open secret that female blues singers like Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and Alberta hunter were lesbian or bisexual.
The Harlem Renaissance, like the 1920s generally, was a time of sexual awakening; a time when inhibitions and taboos were, to some extent, tossed aside. I wanted to...[read on]