Book Reviews

Kiss the Scars on the Back of My Neck: Stories by Joe Okonkwo at Amble Press

Genre Mixed Orientations / Contemporary / Fiction
Reviewed by ParisDude on 10-August-2021

Book Blurb

The eclectic stories in this collection are bound by the threads of desire in its many forms, above all, the desire for love and a place of safety in a world where being Black and gay can thwart the fulfillment of that longing. The characters are complex, driven, difficult, and even, at times, unsympathetic, but always compelling. In other words: fully rounded human beings living complicated lives.

A proud Black woman who escaped her rural, impoverished town returns after the collapse of her marriage and faces the scorn of those she left behind. A middle-aged gay man finds his loneliness temporarily relieved by the arrival of a stray cat. An unhappily married woman becomes enmeshed in her bisexual husband's attempt to create a ménage à trois with a much younger man. A 16-year-old boy discovers the power of his sexuality when he embarks upon a dangerous seduction. Two Black men, one mature and rich, the other young and struggling, are drawn into a contentious affair by their shared love of opera. The legendary blues singer Glady Bentley crashes up against the barriers of race and gender when she gets caught up in a police raid.

Kiss the Scars on the Back of My Neck is a masterful collection of stories by a gifted writer who has fully hit his stride.


Book Review

This! I repeat: this! Definitely. This is how short stories should be written. Each one rounded and anchored in itself, economical with time and space, each almost sparingly deploying just as many scenes as necessary, with a raw intensity pulsing within, and written in that simple prose which, most authors will surely concur, is the most difficult writing goal to achieve. This collection, requested and opened with no precise expectancy whatsoever because I didn’t know the author yet, has made it immediately into the list of my Five Favorite Books Ever (yes, with capital letters), and I urge you to grab a copy. If I had needed any further push, what positively captured me at the end and what I hadn’t seen coming was the clever detail that some of these stories, when put together, created a deeper, almost novel-like arc where the different plots and caracters were finally interwoven in the last and longest story that gave the whole collection its name.


While it always strikes me as difficult to give a succinct summary for a short story collection, here many main characters pop up in several stories, so I should start with Justene Crane, a young, black woman. In ‘Picnic Street’, she has just left her husband, who doesn’t desire her any longer, and moved back from Michigan to her home town in Mississippi together with her nine-year-old son Paulie. Living in her sister’s house, she struggles to make ends meet, which strikes her as all the more important as she is pregnant again—and not from her first son’s father. Paulie comes back as a main character in the third story, ‘Paulie’, which amongst other things shows his artistical and sexual awakening. In the fifth story, ‘The Girls’ Table’, the reader meets young Cedric, who is growing up in Queens. He is a skinny, friendless black kid whom the other boys frequently bully because they sense his difference. These two characters are brought back in the last story, where Paulie turns out to have become a hunky, well-off, renowned painter whereas bisexual Cedric struggles to make his on-and-off relationship with his girlfriend work. After the two men meet in the Metropolitan Opera (at least I presume it’s the Met), a Pygmalion-like love story begins, and its ups and downs give the reader a deeper look into the two characters. Apart from these, there are five other excellent and original short stories.


What I expect from short stories, what I hope they will do, is that they plunge me into the exceptional situation someone is experiencing and make me live it from the inside. Okonkwo has done a formidable “job” here because that is exactly what I got. When a short story is badly told or clumsily constructed, I always have the nagging sensation either that there should be more (which means that the content should have been done in the form of a novel) or much less (meaning the story has not been stripped of its unnecessary parts down to the bare essentials underlining the poignancy of the situation that is shown). Writing efficient short stories is maybe the hardest thing an author can attempt (apart from good poetry, that is) exactly because there are these rules, these laws one is supposed to respect; I have mentioned them already: a situation with some sort of culmination being the center part, plus economy of characters, scenes, time, and space. You drag on too much with fore- and afterstory, so to say, you delve too deep into the central character or remain too much on the surface, you can’t refrain from baroque verbosity, and the result will be unsatisfying.


Joe Okonkwo has found the perfect balance of all these ingredients to make me thoroughly enjoy each story. That in itself is very rare, too—quite often, in a collection, I like maybe half of them, finding the rest barely okay. But here, the nine parts, if they don’t form a whole the way a novel would, have something in common, apart from the excellent writing—our human condition, the effort it takes to be ourselves, the dichotomy between our being and society’s expectations. Most stories evolve around black characters—one of them is even told in the dialect or lingo (I’m no linguist so I couldn’t tell you what to call it) spoken by many American blacks (this is not meant in a disdainful or racist way—I’ve grown up speaking one of the countless Austrian dialects, only learned “proprer” German in school, and am very proud of my roots), which made it all the more poignant in my eyes. What I really appreciated was that the author allowed me to slip into all these characters’ lives and enable me to relate to, even identify with them despite the experiences I haven’t and will probably never have (I’ll never be black, I’ll never be a woman, I’ll never be lesbian) because he succeeded in making them feel universal.


I’ve genuinely loved Joe Okonkwo’s style and direct voice; I’ll certainly check out his other publications, namely his first novel as well as the gay short story collection he edited in 2017.




DISCLAIMER: Books reviewed on this site were usually provided at no cost by the publisher or author. This book has been purchased by the reviewer.


Additional Information

Format ebook and print
Length Collection, 220 pages
Heat Level
Publication Date 10-August-2021
Price $2.99 ebook, $16.95 paperback
Buy Link