Chloe Gong, THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS and the Importance of Shakespearean Retellings

Article by laura g

I'm usually pretty wary when a Shakespearean retelling shows up (especially when it's Romeo and Juliet), however I decided to give These Violent Delights a try and I am so glad that I did! It's sharp as a dagger and thrilling as a sword fight. Gong's intimate grasp of 1920s Shanghai's nuance and energy imbued every page while her fast-paced plot and dimensional characters gave life to the rich setting. Needless to say, I was hooked on this glittering tale, so I was thrilled when I got the chance to interview author Chloe Gong about Shakespeare, political revolution, and monsters!

 

Laura Graveline: So I must admit, even though I was a theatre major in college and have been an unrepentant Shakespeare nerd ever since seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at age 7, I am guilty of being an R+J snob! However I understand you consider it to be one of Shakespeare’s best plays. Why is it one of your favorites and why should people appreciate it more?

 

Chloe Gong: I think that because Romeo and Juliet has been appreciated so much in the past, there’s been a cultural shift in our modern day where it gets disregarded for being overrated and is often cast as just a story about stupid teenagers. But! I would argue that the only reason we think it’s overrated is because its themes and ideas have managed to resonate so strongly over the centuries that we’ve grown overly familiar with them, and we’ve started to engage with what we believe rather than looking at the text itself.

If I were to ask anybody on the street what Romeo and Juliet is about, I’m certain that they would be able to tell me, but they’re far less likelier to have actually watched a production or read the play. My point being, I totally understand where R+J snobbery comes from, because the ideas are so deeply entrenched in Western literature that we’re sick of it, but I also think we’ve gotten sick of it because the play is so good!

Romeo and Juliet follows these core questions of love and hate and family, and what it means to choose love in a city of hate. I adore the characters, I adore Shakespeare’s language, and I adore the ending for what it is, because it so artfully tells a story about sacrifice from two teenagers who made love their final act of violence rather than partake in an everlasting, violent cycle. The flawless execution (no pun intended) should totally be appreciated, but if people are tired of the original play, I think they should totally appreciate the underlying ideas instead, and then perhaps seek them out in retellings and reimaginings!

 

 

LG: We're definitely living in divided times where a story of love as a radical act becomes so powerful. Consider my opinion changed!

While I may not have been the play’s biggest fan, it does have some of my favorite Shakespearean characters (Benvolio, patron saint of fools and lovers, especially has a soft spot in my heart). What are some of the pleasures of bringing such famous characters to life in this adaptation? What are the challenges?

 

CG: It made my job all the more exciting! The wonderful thing about pre-existing characters is that readers are likely to already have some fondness for them—or they have a pre-existing grudge, in which case it’s my duty to change their mind, or lean right into it! In crafting the characters I tried to isolate one core trait of each famous character—Juliet’s sense of whimsy, Romeo’s softness, Mercutio’s extravagance—and then expand outward so they felt more suited for a full-length novel rather than stage characters. I really had to sit and consider which parts of the character are integral to the Shakespearean themes I’m trying to grapple with, and which parts I’m free to completely change and expand into my own ideas about identity and belonging.

 

 

LG: One of my favorite things about your characters is the representation. Not only is there a host of characters from the Asian diaspora (China and Korea specifically), there’s also LGBTQ+ representation. We have Kathleen, a trans woman. Then there’s Benedikt and Marshall, who, as Roma states, are as likely to kill each other as they are to kiss each other. What was the importance of including this representation to you? 

 

CG: It’s so important to me to write diversely, not only because that’s the actual state of the world and it’s simply a good practice to reflect it, but because I’m writing for the young adult age category, and I want teens to see themselves represented in stories that aren’t necessarily about living as these marginalized identities.

Since I grew up in New Zealand my mother tongue is obviously English, so when I got into YA in high school I was reading all the stories coming in from the US or UK market. I only graduated from high school four years ago but even then I hardly saw myself in those stories, and in the off-chance I did, it was stereotyped or thrown in for the sake of being exotic. Of course, I could have sought out actual Asian literature to see myself physically rendered, but that wasn’t me either—I related more to the personalities and characters in the YA at school.

Now that I’m actually an author, it’s my goal to help fill in that empty niche, adding in diaspora characters for readers who were just like me. Within that, it’s also so important to me to add in the intersection of queer identities, because marginalized teens need to see that they’re not all just stories about pain and suffering. There’s grand fantasy stories and monster-fighting stories too.

 

 

LG: Things have come so far in a very short amount of time. It's thrilling to watch modern authors - especially in YA - work to include all these different voices.

Now let’s talk setting. Shanghai is such a unique city, a blend of both Eastern and Western cultures and yet its own place altogether. You have this intrinsic understanding of the city’s nuance and character, so much so that it becomes a focal point of the story. I understand you were born in Shanghai, however you grew up in New Zealand (and you’re obviously not from the 1920s). How did you get such a good feel for the city during this time period specifically? Was there much research involved or did it feel intuitive after living there?

 

CG: I wasn’t born in the 1920s… or was I? (I joke, I joke). It was definitely a blend of research and intuition from living there! I don’t remember much from my first two years because my parents emigrated with me quite early, but I go back often to visit extended family and I often spend summers checking out touristy places or wandering the alleyways.

A lot of Shanghai is still preserved from the 1920s and 1930s because that era was its “Golden Age,” a time slotted right between the fall of the imperial dynasty and the civil war which brought the Communists in 1949. Locations that appear in the book—like Great World—are still functioning and open for me to poke my nose around, which I did plenty anytime I was there.

The atmosphere and visual sort of feeling was something I absolutely needed to see to describe, paired with the stories that my parents and relatives tell me. I don’t think I would have been able to write this book if I didn’t have so many first-hand accounts of the sheer timeless culture that reverberates from the city, whether from the 1920s or in modern day. When it came to the hard historical facts, of course, that was a lot of flipping through textbooks and making sure I had my timelines correct!

 

 

LG: That personal connection is so easy to see when reading the book. Your Shanghai is truly accessible while also being unique. Which leads to my next question.

Anyone who knows me knows I love a good monster, and These Violent Delights has one of the best! I won’t spoil the Guài wù’s origin, but I am curious as to what inspired you to include this madness-inducing monster in the story? 

 

CG: Looking back at all the manuscripts I wrote prior to These Violent Delights, I’ve always been very interested in themes of contagion, or something that picks people off one by one. (I wrote a fantasy trilogy for fun about a sleeping sickness, and before that trilogy, I wrote a mystery series about a high school falling victim to a serial killer.) It could be a deep fear within me of elements out of human control, or it could simply be a craft-related thing that I’ve landed on subconsciously, where chain-reaction death creates tangible stakes so that the narrative is always being pushed toward something. I’m honestly not sure!

But as far as a madness-inducing monster goes, my Notes app tells me that on the 25th of May, 2017, I woke up from my dream and blearily wrote at 5:56AM: “a bacterial infection causing monstrous sea creatures to come to land and terrorise people like zombies. spread to humans like [redacted for spoilers]. A dock-side, amusement park setting?” Obviously there is no amusement park in the book (though how fun if there was!) and the one monster is… not a zombie, but given the Huangpu River is so important to Shanghai as a city, it started to mesh with this water monster idea. 

 

 

LG: It's so fascinating to see how these ideas form and develop. The contagion idea is especially timely right now (and perhaps the madness as well?).

Now my final question for you is quite important! If you had to pick a favorite Shakespeare play (other than R+J), which would you choose and why?

 

CG: Antony and Cleopatra! It’s my favorite after Romeo and Juliet for the complete opposite reason why I adore R+J. R+J is all about the sacrifices of love and themes of choosing it over hatred, while A+C is so much darker and edgier, about how love and power intermingle and corrupt. I just love themes that give me a lot to think about, and Antony and Cleopatra has so much to chew on. 

 

 

LG: Ooh, what a good pick! They definitely are two sides of the same, tragic coin!

Well thank you for such a wonderful interview! Best of luck with These Violent Delights' release!

 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

 

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These Violent Delights Cover Image
$19.99
ISBN: 9781534457690
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Margaret K. McElderry Books - November 17th, 2020

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