Joe Okonkwo’s debut novel, Jazz Moon, was a passionate, thriving, and original novel about love and race, set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and glittering Jazz Age Paris. The eclectic stories in this new collection offer a similar kind of magic that is thrumming with raw grit and contemporary twists.
A young Black woman defies her community, and a gay man’s concept of beauty is rocked. A ménage à trois becomes uncomfortable for unexpected reasons, and a 16-year-old embarks upon a dangerous seduction that could destroy numerous lives. An unemployed, pot-smoking technophobe stumbles into a job that blows up his resistance to change, and two opera-loving Black men, opposites in every way, launch into a contentious love affair.
Okonkwo’s brilliant, viscerally drawn characters in Kiss the Scars on the Back of My Neck vibrate with energy and power as they brave (and resist) the damaging emotional effects of negative body image and loneliness, black-on-black racism, the changing nature of romantic relationships, and the complications of living in a relentlessly digital world.
“Joe Okonkwo’s storytelling talents are on full display in his new collection. Moving through a range of eras and settings, the finely drawn characters in these nine short stories navigate sex, love, power, betrayal, and belonging as they strive to live as their full and veracious selves.” —LISA KO, author of The Leavers
“Vivid, taut, slyly funny, bitchy, steamy, kinky, painful, melancholy, tender—all those words and more describe the stories contained here. Okonkwo fluidly moves between eras, points of view, and narrative voices to spin a collection of tales that capture people—Black and white, gay, straight, and ambiguous, bougie and low-down—at their best and worst, striving for sex, status, and true love. Whether the conflicts are mothers and sons, bisexual love triangles or schoolmates turned lovers, the characters in Okonkwo’s stories pinball against one another in surprising ways, many of them reuniting once more in the final title story, a moving and complex crescendo.” —TIM MURPHY Christodora and Correspondents
“Joe Okonkwo has a keen eye and ear for the way human beings talk to each other and think about themselves. The stories in Kiss the Scars on the Back of My Neck range from the woundedness of the modern age to the defiant power of the glorious Harlem Renaissance, shimmering from start to finish with passion, love, rage, loneliness, and danger. A remarkable examination of the human condition.” —WILLIAM J. MANN, author of The Wars of the Roosevelts and Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand
“Joe Okonkwo presents a world of hurt—the walking wounded dragging themselves through the wreckage they themselves sometimes created. His voice, a steady hand on the back of your neck, forces you to look at his deeply flawed characters. You can dislike them, you can judge them, but you cannot turn away, so compelling is his examination of his characters’ emotional truths. To read this collection of stories is like taking a master class in writing literary fiction.” —LARRY BENJAMIN, author of The Sun, The Earth & The Moon and In His Eyes
“Joe Okonkwo does deep character work. Centering Black voices, queer voices, and femme voices, Kiss the Scars on the Back of My Neck presents unforgettable characters in stories that are equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious, and, at times, achingly sexy. In this far-ranging collection—moving from Prohibition-era jazz clubs to the Reagan ‘80s to present-day hook-up app culture, swinging from child narrators to single mothers, and including several thrillingly-linked stories—Okonkwo explores what it means to be human in all its glorious messiness. His characters throb with desire, fumbling to love and feel loved in the only ways they know-how. In Okonkwo’s stories, there are no easy answers, no black-and-white, only, as one of his characters notes, “oases of gray.” Musical references abound. Makes sense, as one of the great pleasures of reading Okonkwo’s work is the sounds of his sentences, the poetry of his language. I finished this book feeling richer, wiser, and more grateful to be alive.” —RAHUL MEHTA, Lambda Literary Award-winning author of No Other World and Quarantine
JOE OKONKWO is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, and editor. His debut novel Jazz Moon won the Publishing Triangle’s prestigious 2016 Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Fiction. A cum laude graduate of the University of Houston with a B.A. in theater, Joe made his living for a number of years as an actor, stage manager, director, playwright, and youth theater instructor. He also holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from City College of New York.