Romeo & Juliet hasn’t faired so well over the past years. While Shakespeare still holds acclaim, his works haven’t aged perfectly. Romeo & Juliet receives its own share of mockery on the internet. Readers are quick to point out that the protagonists are 14-year-old kids. They are children who fall-in-love, marry, and commit suicide in less than a week. Simply put, the kids aren’t alright.
Still, it has inspired countless adaptations and references. From Romeo Must Die (2000), Gnomeo & Juliet (2018), the musical West Side Story, Rebecca Serle’s When You Were Mine, to a throwaway line in Westworld, allusions to Romeo & Juliet remind us that there are many ways that love can get complicated. Joining the ranks of deadly love is Chloe Gong’s debut novel, These Violent Delights. Romeo and Juliet – ahem, Roma and Juliette, carry their own history in Gong’s novel as the heirs to respective gang and mob families in 1920s Shanghai. Moreover, they are forced to work together when a monster starts to terrorize the city.
The continued draw to star-crossed lovers is what the author calls “the angst potential.” In an exclusive interview with The Tempest, Chloe Gong said: “There’s no fun in a romance that’s never challenged.” But These Violent Delights reinvents the trope in a whole new timeline, both for the 1920s and for the characters themselves. In this adaptation, Roma and Juliette are older teenagers, jaded by a shared history, and love-wary. “[They] have already done the Insta-love, star-crossed saga once before and had it end badly, and now they have that hurt on top of the hatred between their rival gang,” Gong said, upping the ante.
Just as in the musical West Side Story, the opposing Cais and Montagov families are gang-enemies of different ethnic backgrounds. Set in Shanghai, it pulls in a dramatic tension around the colonial era. The Cais are ethnic Chinese, forming the Scarlet Gang that Juliette is set to inherit. On the other hand, the Montagovs lead the White Flowers, a nod to Shanghai’s immigrant community of “White Russians” that sought refuge at the start of the 20th century. The gangs face not only challenges from each other, but from the British, Communist, Kuomintang, and French forces within the city.
“I wanted to have fun with the glamor and the glitter, but I also wanted to use my voice for portraying the colonial and imperial tension of this time,” Gong said. As a college student at the University of Pennsylvania studying International Relations and English, she turned to the history of colonial and government powers that converged on the coastal city. Although a YA-fantasy book, it draws from historical and political reality. “There is still not enough acknowledgment for the harm that has lasted into the present,” Gong commented. “It’s messy and complicated and relevant to remember even in the twenty-first century when whole countries are cast under the same brush!”
With the cultural and ethnic amalgamation at the center of the novel, These Violent Delights also shakes up its cast with fresh faces and a diverse crowd. Although an adaptation of a classic, These Violent Delights deftly dodges old, harmful tropes of female and LGBTQ+ characters as throw-aside comedy or tragedy for others. “It seemed like the natural move to make! I wanted a cast that was updated for the modern audience, representing the modern readers who would be browsing the shelves and wanting to see themselves in stories that are about these classic ideas of love and hatred and loyalty,” Gong said. From Gong’s own perspective, the character of Juliette draws from the identity conflict of second-generation immigrants. “I always thought we needed more of that in stories that aren’t solely about coming of age and investigating your identity,” Gong added.
Despite its Shakespearean inspiration, the vivid and romantic tones of These Violent Delights feel closer kin with the YA books that Gong cites as her inspiration, such as Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. As a young author herself, Gong said that she wrote the novel at the same age as her main characters, drawing from her own “coming-of-age growing pains.”
“I see the stories I create in a more personal way, and I view my audience as people who like the same things that I do, rather than a separate entity,” she said. “Being so close to my target audience means I confidently know that I don’t need to listen to gatekeepers, and [instead] just keep writing what I’m writing for people just like me.”
For myself, I’ve always been a Shakespearean fan although indulging in the same internet teasing. But with These Violent Delight’s maneuver between classic adaptation and reinvention, I found myself leaning toward familiarity: the feeling like this was a story I already knew. But not from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. It was a story I felt familiar with because of its YA style and pacing that I grew up reading and loving. It was familiar because its diverse cast was filled with faces I could see my friends filling in. It felt familiar for the “diaspora narrative” that Juliette embodies between East and West, and as a second-generation immigrant myself.
The novel takes liberties with the reader’s willingness to buy into the characters’ history. That aspect of Roma and Juliette’s past isn’t revealed until half-way through. Part of that delay is due to the heavy scene-setting that Gong adds—tying together vivid descriptions of the city with its historical reality of colonialism. As a Politics major, I deeply appreciated this consideration given to the story’s political and historical atmosphere; as a Russian & Eastern European studies minor, I was surprised and delighted to see the reference to “White Russians” in the Montagovs.
As much as YA-fantasy has its critics with the genre’s seeming inability to tackle social issues beyond their narrative and common tropes, I believe Gong reinvents it by drawing from both the authentic voices of her young audiences and also balancing a broader, social awareness. It’s a balancing act that a lot of the young generation, myself included, find ourselves working through every day.
Hopefully, Gong’s novel is just one of many more YA books that will continue to fold in socio-cultural awareness and authentic experiences of young adults. But what we do know for sure, is that there will at least be a sequel. The publisher Simon & Schuster picked up These Violent Delights as the first of a two-part series, as (spoiler) it ends on a riveting cliffhanger. So what can we expect from the next book? The author left it open-ended and mysterious: “More drama, more blood, more violence, more delights, and more romance!”
Stay tuned to our Instagram, we have a giveaway of These Violent Delights coming up! If you absolutely can’t wait to start reading, get the book on The Tempest’s Bookshop supporting local bookstores for $18.39 or on Amazon for $13.51.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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