In this episode, we discuss Chloe Gong's intricate Young Adult Fantasy reworkings of Romeo & Juliet set in 1920s Shanghai: These Violent Delights & Our Violent Ends.
For a complete episode transcript, check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com
Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Ms Chloe Gong
Research Lead: Ms Morgen Shung
Producer: Ms Ellie Zwolensky
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan
Hello, and happy new year, dear listeners. Welcome to Women & Shakespeare. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani. And I want to begin this new year by telling you about all the young women who feature in this episode. Regular listeners and students and friends I'm sure know of my love for one of Shakespeare's young women, Juliet, who I think has a mind of her own and tries to rebel against the overwhelming toxic masculinity of her world. And I'm sure they've heard me moan that she's often sidelined in popular culture, performances, and adaptations. This is why I seek out adaptations in which she's given her due. In series 2 of this podcast, you heard Mary Bly talk about her novel, 'Lizzie & Dante', in which the Juliet character takes center stage.
In today's episode, I am thrilled to be talking to Chloe Gong, the New York Times best-selling author of 'These Violent Delights', and the recently released sequel, 'Our Violent Ends'. In these young adult fantasy narratives, Gong reimagines 'Romeo & Juliet' in 1920s Shanghai, and her Juliette Cai is a richly layered passionate gun-wielding badass. I loved her at first read. And when I enthused to my students about the book, it emerged that my students were avid fans of Gong, not least because her success as a young and minority woman author inspired them as much as her writing engaged them.
So this episode was recorded slightly differently. My student and research lead extraordinaire, Morgan Shung, collected and curated questions from many young women whose names you will hear as I ask their questions. She also researched the novels and the writer and helped me shape this conversation. Another student, Ellie Zwolensky, was the most professional producer that I could have wished for. So this episode is for all the young women who have made this episode possible, from Juliet Capulet to Juliette Cai and her creator, Chloe Gong, my guest.
From my research lead to my producer, to everyone who asked questions and to all the young women listeners out there trying to navigate the various obstacles that the world throws at you a la Juliet, I am in awe of you.
Chloe, we're so excited. My students think you are the coolest. They love your writing. I think you're the coolest, and we're very excited to have you here.
Oh, I'm blushing already. I'm very excited to be here.
Great. Chloe, so we will dive right in, and I'm going to ask you a question that I ask everyone on this podcast. When did you first encounter Shakespeare, and what was the nature of that encounter?
Oh, I first got into Shakespeare in high school because I had an amazing English teacher, Mr. Randall. He was just so passionate about teaching Shakespeare, that even though every time we got to the Shakespeare unit, the whole class would be like, "Oh, I don't want to do Shakespeare." He was like, "Guys, come on. Shakespeare is cool." Not in those words, I'm paraphrasing a little, but that was his general attitude. I think we did 'Othello' and 'Hamlet'. And just the way that he talked about Shakespearean tragedies and the language usage and how these themes get so cleverly used, made me really appreciate Shakespeare craft-wise, dug in deep and understood, "Oh, these language techniques have this meaning." So it was that basis of knowledge I had that even gave me the original love for Shakespeare to even then later sit down and be like, "Maybe I want to go look at these kinds of things on my own," because I already had that academic basis to know how to read and understand Shakespeare. So good English teachers are really, really important for these kinds of things, I think.
So many writers tell me that, actually, Shakespeare for them has good craft ideas to take on board. But with that in mind, you've written two books now that adapt 'Romeo and Juliet' to a fantasy young adult novel genre. I think it really works with your monsters and your biological warfares. We won't say much more. The first one is phenomenally successful, and the sequel is just out. So we will talk about this in more detail in a moment, but what was appealing to you about this genre?
Yeah, it was, I guess, almost automatic instinct because I did want to work with Shakespearean concepts and themes, but I'd also just grown up reading young adult fantasy. And so it seemed like the most natural thing for me. And by the time I had mashed together the monsters and then 1920s Shanghai, I actually originally pitched this novel as historical fiction. And then by the time I was with my agent, she was like, "This isn't really historical fiction." If anything, our technical genre is actually historical sci-fi. But no one really sells historical sci-fi. So it's almost a market mechanism to go calling it young adult fantasy.
It does kind of fit in, given there is a certain unexplainableness to what's going on. There's a certain system. But as far as a magic system, it's not really in my book. So while I could technically pitch it as a Shakespearean retelling in a sci-fi 1920s setting and people would be like, "I don't know what that means," so I kind of just pitch it as, "Oh, YA fantasy Shakespearean retelling." They're like, "Oh, interesting." And then I trick them into opening the book. And by the time they're halfway through, it's too late. I've already got them.
Now that I have read, or actually I have heard your novel, I consumed it as an audio book, I can definitely see why you would say historical science fiction because there's a lot of history, and there's a lot of science fiction that actually is very prescient in the way that science fiction is. So I can see where you're coming from with that. But we need more genres, I think. That's what it is, right, rather than trying to shoehorn writers into.
I agree. Yeah. I would love it if more genres got riskier and I guess more expanding outwards, I think especially because 'These Violent Delights' was my debut. It felt much safer to say, "Oh, look, it does fit into this wider category that a lot of marketing and publicity funding goes into." So it was easy to go into that. But for my third book that I'm working on right now, I'm like, "Yeah, this is just historical science fiction thriller." I can't even shoehorn it into YA fantasy anymore. It's just a weird mishmash of genre. But since my audience is set, I can just tell you, "Okay, Shakespeare retelling, historical sci-fi, slightly noire, speculative." And people are like, "I don't know what that means. Well, fine, I guess I'll read it."
Great. That's very Shakespearean of you. I think we can't really pin a genre in Shakespeare, too. So what I really enjoyed was your detail in picking out language, proverbs, and translations in 1920s Shanghai. And as we understand it, you were born in Shanghai, and you were raised in New Zealand, and then you went to university in the United States. So one of my students, Pilar Cerón, she really wanted to know, do you feel that your multicultural upbringing in life gives you a very unique insight into Shakespeare's plays or into any works of literature, for that matter?
Yeah. I think having that sort of background is what led me to do something in 1920s Shanghai in the first place because it was a lot of my parents' influence and the kind of stories that they would tell and the kind of stories that, I guess, I kind of hear second-hand passed from my relatives because all of them are from Shanghai. And the 1920s Shanghai, in their minds, is the golden era history, right? My parents were born in, what, the '70s. Yeah. They're born in the seventies. So they don't know about 1920s Shanghai firsthand or anything, but because this era was just so important in the city's history, it's something that they hear stories about, something that Chinese media makes a lot of stories about. And since that was what I grew up around, I had always had this fascination towards.
But because my parents were the ones who immigrated, so then I became the first generation diaspora, I've always had this, oh, this is my cultural history. But oh, this is the place that I am growing up, and then I have to find some sort of place within. And then there's that feeling of, oh, wow, juggling two worlds. Why is there no media that really hones in on that? Because the idea of diaspora is so new, and there haven't been as many creators as there could be putting products out there. And I just sat down. I was like, I could do something about that. And because 1920s Shanghai already had this good basis of melting pot of native Chinese and then immigrants who were fleeing, there was so much happening in Europe at the time because Shanghai was this freeport city. You didn't need a visa to come in.
There were Russians and then Jewish and then all of the persecuted peoples in Europe. And then there were colonists and imperialists coming in to persecute people. So there was a lot happening in the city. And I thought there was a lot to make metaphors out of the identity experience and the kind of imperialism that's still happening. Western imperialism, 100 years later, it's just an echo of what's going on. I do think the way that I was raised and the way that I see the world, even just the world building, I don't think I could have done on it if I wasn't who I am. That sounds like a weird way to put it. But yeah, the way that I've had to experience the world, it all went into it, I think.
Coming from those worlds, do you feel that you own Shakespeare, that is something for diaspora? Do we understand it better? Do we feel alienated from it?
Oh, that's such a good question. I don't know. It's very hard for diaspora to ever feel like they own something, right, because we've just been kicked out of the cannon, the classics. It almost feels a bit like we're sticking our elbows in and barging in anyway because they're always telling us we don't own it. So we're like, "Well, actually, I think we could bring a very valuable lens onto these stories that we've been written out of, at least in Western literature. It's almost like we're invading our way in, but it's a good thing because now for the people who also needed those stories, now there's a valuable fraction of it that we can hold.
I love your take on it, that we are writing ourselves into these stories that we have been written out of, in some way, by telling them from a unique lens. And then yes, you're right. So the people who will come after us might feel, "Well, yeah, I do feel written into this story, too."
That's amazing. Okay. So let us talk a little bit more about the books themselves. And so the books are called 'These Violent Delights', lovely title, and 'Our Violent Ends'. And of course, both refer to a line from 'Romeo and Juliet', and both titles, I can't help noticing, pick up on violence rather than love. So why is that?
I think when I sit into the retelling, I've just had this intention of capturing that dual comedy-tragedy balance. And in that sense, I knew that the undercurrent is, obviously a very strong romance. But romance isn't the central plot. And so the whole time, it had to be this balance of, well, why isn't love allowed in a city like this? Oh, because of the hatred. Oh, because of the senseless violence. In my head, it's always been very tightly ingrained, where, because of this, I guess, society and because of the blood feud, I guess, the blood feud that has no explanation for it, right, because of the violence, it's this constant thing, that's this constant big societal obstacle weighing down the actual tiny, beautiful part of hope and love. So I guess having violence overshadowing the love is my take on what 'Romeo and Juliet' was, right, because I'm the number one 'Romeo and Juliet' stand where I'm like, "Everyone saying that 'Romeo and Juliet' is about stupid teenagers has missed the point," because the very ending of it is that they did something so brave rather than continuing cycle of violence, right? And so that's kind of, because that was my reading of it, I think that's a lot of what I've carried through into my retelling of it.
I agree with you completely that here, love becomes a radical act, and that is why this story is so powerful. Otherwise, what's the point?
Do you think it's reputation as a teenage love story has really done it a disservice.
It has. It actually has. I don't know how it was perceived just a hundred years ago, but at least modern society today hates teenagers so much. And I think that's why it gets a lot of this reputation because people just don't like hearing brave stories about young people. Not to go on too much of a tangent, but at least what I've observed being a young person in a majority older industry, they don't like young people. They think we're annoying. So yeah. I think a lot of 'Romeo and Juliet' gets very, maybe overlooked isn't quite the right word, I guess, not taken seriously because inherently, people believe that if it's young people going through brave things or going through big thematic concepts, it's not as strong. So yeah. I guess pop culture is also to blame because a lot of people just haven't consumed 'Romeo and Juliet' on a stage. They've never watched it. They've just heard about what it is, and they've formed their own perceptions off there. But that's my constant soap box. I'm always just mad that people haven't actually consumed it.
Speaking of, do you have any favorite Shakespeare adaptations that influenced you?
Funnily, I really like the Baz Luhrmann adaptation, the Leonardo DiCaprio one, but I actually didn't watch that until after I finished writing my book. A lot of people are surprised because there are very similar things with the gangsters and the modernized adaptation. But yeah, I didn't watch that until afterwards, and I really, really loved it. It's incredibly up my alley, but surprisingly I didn't get influenced by it. But there are actually quite a lot of young adult contemporary adaptations of 'Romeo and Juliet'. There's this one I really love called 'Magnolia' by Kristi Cook where instead of two feuding families, it's about two families who are best friends in, I think, somewhere in the American south, I don't know. These farm houses... They're best friends, and they wanted their kids to get married, but the kids hate each other. I think it's so fun because it just completely flips 'Romeo and Juliet'. But I wouldn't say I have the big piece that inspired me directly to look at 'Romeo and Juliet'. I think I kind of just stumbled onto it.
Okay. So we have recommendations for you, Chloe, because have you seen any Bollywood versions of 'Romeo and Juliet'?
I haven't, but my best friend keeps telling me I need to watch one. He's like we, "We can watch it together. Listen. It's a 'Romeo and Juliet' retelling. We'll watch it together." I can't remember what it's called, but I think I know what you're talking about.
Yes, Chloe, 'Ram-Leela'. And you have to watch it, and they have set it in this fictional Indian town of Ranjhaar. I think you will really enjoy it.
I'm putting it at the top of my list.
Fabulous. Speaking about Baz Luhrmann's adaptation, I love it, too. However, one thing that I was really disappointed by Luhrmann's adaptation, Juliet, right? Juliet is a bit of a angel wings, prepubescent character, and so on. But in yours, she's different from Luhrmann's and slightly different from Shakespeare's as well because in your novel, Juliette Cai is very much raised as an heir to this gangster family. And I loved your reference where she's playing with toy guns in her childhood with her cousin. So in your own words, how do you think that Juliet from Shakespeare and Juliette Cai are different? And then Morgan wanted to know, do you think Shakespeare's Juliet and your Juliette would be friends?
I think they would kind of get along well because when I sit out to write Juliette Cai, my Juliet, she comes into the story with a lot of power, and not all the power that she could have because she's a woman, a young girl really, in a very male-dominated society. But she has been given a certain amount of power by birthright, which I think kind of shaped how her character would ultimately develop. But I did take her original skeleton from Shakespeare's Juliet because I think in the play, Shakespeare's Juliet has so much more steel than we give her credit for. Constantly, a lot of times I even hear people reviewing my book like, "Oh, this isn't Shakespeare's Juliet," when I'm like, but Shakespeare's Juliet actually was pretty strong.
They just don't see how Shakespeare's Juliet has her own strength to work with her circumstances and work with her society and use that to her advantage and still get what she wants. And I really wanted to capture that when I was making a adaptation of that character because I think she has the backbone where she's just like, "What I want, I will go get it. I don't care what it takes." And I think because I've planted it into 1920s Shanghai, it just comes out more. So yeah, I don't think I changed Juliette Cai that much from Juliet Capulet. I think Juliet Capulet got plucked into another setting and that's the person she grew into, is how mine came to be.
Yeah. I'm big fan of Juliet. She has a lot of courage and backbone. So talking about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the two characters, they form a sort of bubble, and then they try and stay away as much as they can from the blood feud. I mean, obviously, Romeo becomes involved through killing Tybalt, and he cannot escape it. But then even after that, Juliet, I think in one of the first moves towards peace in the play, she forgives him. However, in your novel, both Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov become so implicated in the civil war between their families. Why did you decide to make that change?
I guess because I took it as a modernized novel, I wanted to give them more of a stake in it or more of a, I guess, hold over the plot in the city and everything unfolding because a thing about a five-act play is that the actors on the stage is what makes you love them, right? By the time you're taking the play's lines itself and putting it into novel form, all the heavy lifting is done in the characters and what they do and the plot and how it unravels because you don't have the charisma of a person on the stage anymore making you love them. So I guess that's almost the nature of adaptation. I had to sit down and say, "Well, why do I care enough to read 400 pages of these characters running around a city and trying not to die as a contagion goes around?"
And to me, the decision kind of just came out to make them more involved. They become more flawed people because they're not completely loving people. They're full of hate as well now, which I think the play doesn't want to hone in as much on because they're these pictures of innocence. But I think I gave them a lot more hatred because I found that more interesting when it came to a long form novel. And then I don't know if I want to spoil it, but by the time we get to the end of book one, tables turn. And then suddenly book two, we open, and the whole time in book one, Juliette's like, "How could he lie to me? How could he ever do this?" And suddenly, she's like, "Oh, actually, now I know why he did it. Now I have to do it."
Yeah. And regarding Romeo's betrayal, I think it's really important. We never, at least in Anglo-Western criticism even or stage, I've never seen that betrayal, his killing off Tybalt taken seriously. And that has to be something, right, when Juliet hears that he's killed her cousin right after marrying her. There has to be something there. So I think your novel really hones in on Romeo's act and the way it can be read in a way that I don't think many adaptations do. Have you read Romeo like that?
I think when I wrote in Roma's betrayal, it wasn't so much thinking exactly of Tybalt so much as... I think Shakespeare's whole point is, love and hate, just run hand in hand. Right? I thought it was so interesting. Then that means you can flip your love into hate like that. So originally the story was going to be that, if 'Romeo and Juliet' ended without them both loving each other so much that they'd die for it, if instead they chose the cycle of violence, where do we go from there was kind of how my story came to be.
Yeah. I loved your flipping of love and hate. It's so easy and the reverse can be done. So I love that idea, and you've explored it beautifully. In 'These Violent Delights', you do engage with topics such as race and such as queer identities. So did this lens make you see the play differently, or maybe while you were rewriting it through the lens of the play, it shed some light on these issues?
I think bringing in new lenses that haven't necessarily been in the classics, in the canon, it makes them different. It gives them a new take on these age-old ideas that have been done from the majority lens. And it's as expected. And I think it lends itself to it already because he's talking about an equal blood feud, and it's so easy to take that and then investigate. Okay, so what does an equal blood feud look like? And then suddenly, what does an unequal blood feud look like? Shakespeare didn't look at the latter, but because he looked at the former, I could take it and be like, "Okay, well, now my story is going to be about rival Chinese and Russian gangs who don't hold power over each other. They're a complete equal." But then there's the British and the Americans and the French and the Japanese, and they hold a different power over the native and immigrant groups. And I could then explore that because I already had the basis for hatred equally. And I guess it almost carves a way out into a whole new topic only because we had that original to work off of, right, which is why I do think retellings are valuable because it's not the same story retold, which is what a lot of the criticism comes on when you do retellings of classics. It's taking something that you're familiar with and bringing it into unfamiliar territory, right?
And the same with adding on queer. I do think Shakespeare was trying at that anyway. He is so smart with the way he plays with gender, and a lot of his other plays, in epilogues wherein characters are talking about, "Oh, I'm not really a little boy," but then they're male actors. He's clearly put a lot of thought into it. And so it's just putting it in explicitly then just becomes, "Okay, well, now I'm giving it this angle." And especially in young adult literature, representation, having it there is this hugely important thing. So writing the world is how it is, and then it kind of further deepens Shakespeare's ideas. And I really love how those two go hand in hand together.
Great. Once we have a basis, then we can shed different lights on it and see it from different angles. Fantastic. So many students in my class, as I was telling you, find your success and your story so inspiring. And Hana AlMakkawy and Pilar, they were wondering how was it to navigate the publishing industry as a young woman of color. And I want to know, did the fact that you were adapting Shakespeare help and hinder you as you were doing that?
I think it did help. I think not just Shakespeare, but specifically that I was doing 'Romeo and Juliet'. In hindsight, as I reflect back on my past year as a debut and my journey in that, I think when you're a person of color and you're writing these stories, especially sit in a city that's not in the West and set in a setting that people aren't necessarily very familiar with, inserting in something like 'Romeo and Juliet' that they immediately recognize was really helpful because then it's not like, "Oh, this is so far. And I don't know how to grasp this." It's, "Oh, okay. It's the story I'm really familiar with, but you're doing something incredibly different to it. So I'm interested in hearing what that's about." And that's something that was very... I couldn't have gone into it knowing that. I just so happened to be interested in doing 'Romeo and Juliet' retelling set in 1920s Shanghai.
And there was no way I could have sat down and predicted, "Okay, well, this is how I'm going to cater to Western sensibilities just enough. And this is how I'm going to go around it to please my own creativeness," right? It's so hard to sit down and think, what does the market want? You can't do that, or else, you're going to drive yourself off the rails. But now that I've passed that experience, and I can look back on it, now I can say for sure, to survive in the American publishing industry, oh, my God, having a Romeo and Juliet retelling definitely gave it that marketing angle because it's something that everyone knows. But yeah, in general, it's just not easy to be a minority in something like publishing because there are gatekeepers at every level, and I'm just incredibly lucky to have ended up working with a team who really get the stories that I'm telling.
But it's hard. It's not usual. A lot of times you will hit barriers at every point. And it's almost sad that the only real advice that you can get off that is to keep going. And sometimes it's really hard to keep going because you've just been shot down over and over again, and you're not getting support for your stories. It's just so much luck in publishing, and I've just been really lucky to get support so much of the way through and up until this point. But as people say, publishing is not a meritocracy. It's a lot of just ramming into the wall and keep going until you rammed in there. But it does get easier once you get your foot in. So if anyone out there is trying to get their story out there and they feel like it's not working, just keep going. Keep working on your craft. If it's the story, keep working on forging out there and getting an agent if that's the point that you're at. Keep running through the wall until the wall crumbles beneath you. That's how to survive.
You're right. Thank you for your honesty. It does sound exhausting. But maybe I feel like stories such as yours will at least open up the market a little bit and help publishers trust.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I hope so. It's my hope. Yeah.
Great. Before we wind up, can you tell us a little bit more about the sequel that has just been published in the UK?
Yes. So the sequel is 'Our Violent Ends'. It takes place shortly after the events of' These Violent Delights'. Roma and Juliette have to work together again because there is a greater threat on their city. Things are not looking so hot. Revolution is sweeping in. Gangster rule could be at total annihilation if they don't work together and figure out what is happening to all of their people. So it's the finale, but things aren't over. There is a spin-off duology coming that I can't release any information about at this point in time, but the world's not over is my point. Story keeps going, even though Roma and Juliette's narrative arc will have its finale in the sequel. And I'm really, really excited for everyone to read it.
And many of the characters in your novel have names that are parallels of the names of Shakespeare's characters. And we were wondering if it is true for Rosalind as well. Is she a sort of Rosaline or are you thinking of another Rosalind in Shakespeare?
When does this episode... Oh, okay. Oh, God, I'm going to get in trouble if I say it, and they haven't announced it yet. Originally, yes. So Rosalind is a Rosaline. And I don't know if I put it in book one. I think in book two, you do find out that originally Roma was sighing to her. It's a very small detail. It's one of those Easter eggs that I kind of just put in. Just for safety, I won't say much, but I'll say it's not a coincidence that we have a Rosalind and a Celia. So I'll keep it at that.
Oh, my God. I know where you're going with this, and this is so exciting. Okay. Okay. Yes. Let's not get you into trouble, but we are very excited to hear that. And I think that your Easter egg technique actually is wonderful, so where you drop in little hints for the Shakespeare lover or sometimes misdirect, that's quite special. So we love that this is an extension of that and that we might get to hear more on that at some point.
The sandwiching of stories, it's very fun. It's very fun for me.
Awesome. We are rooting for them, and I will definitely read it. And I'm sure that my students will tell me all about it. Thank you, Chloe. That was amazing.
Thank you. This was so great. I'm so happy to be here.
And that was Chloe Gong talking about 'Our Violent Delights', 'Our Violent Ends', Shakespeare adaptations, and the valuable lenses provided by diaspora writers. For next month, I'm excited to host Yarit Dor because I don't know anything about her area of expertise. And I'm looking forward to the viels of my ignorance being lifted somewhat. Dor is a fight director, and we will talk about the fights that she has choreographed for different productions of 'Hamlet' and 'As You Like It'. She is also credited as the first intimacy director in London's West End, a hugely important role that we will also find out more about in relation to 'Romeo and Juliet'. So dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember to tune in to 'Women & Shakespeare' streaming at Apple podcasts and Spotify. If you want to listen to the podcast with full transcript, head over to our website, www.womenandshakespeare.com. Until then, keep smashing the patriarchy.