These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong was one of my most anticipated reads of 2020, and it did not disappoint! In my interview, Gong shared a lot about her writing process and the intention behind her work. I know I found myself in these pages, and I know many other readers will as well.
As one of the earliest Gen-Z YA fiction writers to be taken on by a major publishing company, how has being part of this generation affected your writing journey?
Being Gen Z and also writing for a Gen Z audience helps a lot in directing how I want my work to land! Even before I sold These Violent Delights, I knew that I wanted to write for teens—for people my age—which doesn’t just mean I’m writing about the youths, but also that I want to be writing the sort of content Gen Z likes to latch onto. I’m 21 now, but belonging to the upper end of my target audience’s generation helps me keep my finger on the pressure point of what’s hot. This is not to say I write toward trends, but that the ideas and tropes which get me excited are also what’s exciting to current readers. To me, it’s not just about the content and the plot, but what I do with it and how it can stir up the most amount of rapid-fire discussion and obsession that characterizes the internet-dominated YA reading experience today. Longevity in YA feels tied to whether a work will generate stan accounts on Twitter, so even as I throw my English major heart into symbolism and social commentary and complex plots, I’m still thinking about whether hypothetical Twitter user @ionlysimpforroma would keep reading, and I write knowing this book is for them!
These Violent Delights is inspired by the play Romeo and Juliet, but unlike its Shakespearean counterpart, includes characters of vastly different backgrounds and identities. There are many times when Juliette’s thoughts, normally the less stabby ones, are reminiscent of those of children of the diaspora. Did developing her in this way lead you to any new conclusions about your own related experience?
Less stabby thoughts, I love it. Definitely! The fact that I started writing These Violent Delights when I was Juliette’s age contributed to this too, because I was tapping into my heritage to write a book set in Shanghai, and although I was born there and visit my relatives often, I don’t truly know enough of it to classify it my home. I feel a call to the culture because it is my parents’ culture and because they’ve told enough stories at home that the city feels familiar. But it still isn’t mine. Although Juliette might not technically qualify to be diaspora because she was sent to New York for education, her struggle with identity in the book was intentionally written to reflect a diaspora experience and how Asian diaspora readers might feel. I poured a lot of this conflict into Juliette, so it may be that I simply colored her in with what I already feel rather than discovering something new. I wanted to write something set in Shanghai because I’ve always adored the city but I wasn’t sure if that was something a Western audience wanted to read, and given my mother tongue is English, that’s the only audience I can write for; at the same time, no matter how much I westernized my work, even if I wrote a novel set in New Zealand (where I grew up), it would still never be recognized as a “New Zealand” novel, because I’m ethnically Chinese, and no one envisions a Chinese face when they think “New Zealander.”
Do you have any advice for readers who are struggling with their own identities in the way Juliette does?
For readers who relate—there’s nothing we can do but forge our own place. We’re caught between worlds, neither of which fully want us, so we make that space in-between.
Besides the ever-present weapon, Juliette’s wardrobe often consists of a beaded dress and a large coat, at odds with the Shanghai fashion scene. What’s the significance of her choice of clothing, besides political strategy, especially in light of her inner conflict regarding her ownership of the city she holds so close to her heart?
In the book, Juliette reflects how, the first time she returned to Shanghai from New York when she was 15, she sneered at Chinese fashion and refused to wear anything other than Americanized clothes. I wanted to investigate that mindset a lot of the diaspora can probably relate too. When we’re sick of being lumped in with our country of origin, when we’re desperately trying to prove ourselves a part of the majority culture, the initial instinct is to shun every part of the original culture. “I’m not Chinese-Chinese, you know? I’m not like those Chinese people.” And some of us are still stuck there as a defense mechanism, while others work ourselves out of this mindset to claim the different parts of our identity. In the present-day narrative, Juliette observes she’s come down from her high horse, and Shanghai has become a place she has embraced, rather than thinking herself above her fellow civilians because she was educated in New York. She’s highly critical of the ideas that were brought in with Western imperialism, that brainwashed her when she was younger: the fact that she’d be treated better for speaking English in an American accent rather than the accent her parents have, the fact that her westernization helps her deal with the foreigners because they trust her more. Her wardrobe and her beaded dresses become something that helps her subvert the privilege she has—she knows this game she’s been pulled in to play, and she’ll play it better.
In These Violent Delights, colonialism is entrenched in both the plot and the setting. What do you feel your novel contributes to the current conversation about colonialism and why is it important for readers to be aware of its repercussions, especially from the perspective of those being colonized?
To begin with, I think there’s not enough acknowledgment in genre fiction that the 1920s was this rampant time of colonialism and imperialism. I wanted to write something with the gorgeous aesthetic of the roaring 20s, but to ignore the politics of the time would make it feel completely empty. At first glance, the conflict of These Violent Delights has nothing to do with colonialism: a monster killing people? A madness killing gangsters? But it has everything to do with it—both in that colonial efforts are what primes the city to fall into chaos, and for spoilery reasons when the monster’s origins come to light. After the Opium Wars, China was never formally colonized, but Shanghai had its land cut up and occupied so thoroughly that it used to be called a foreign city in its own country. I think the book’s themes circle around my effort to show that a colonized society will be touched by repercussions at every which angle, and there is no moving forward by simply ignoring it. I’ve also always sought stories set in Shanghai because I love the city, but I read in English and the only stories written in English I could find either exoticized the locals or were just plain racist. It’s tiring to flip open a book about a foreigner prancing into Shanghai to solve cozy mysteries in the 1920s, as if in reality, they weren’t institutionally oppressing my ancestors. The only way I know to rectify this is by telling my own stories, and pushing the narrative toward voices that shed light to the harm of colonial efforts, rather than those that continue enforcing it.
Was writing that torturous ending difficult at all, or does such gorgeously evocative destruction just come naturally to you?
HAHA! I love angst, so given that I knew there was a second book coming in the duology, I truly had no qualms ending the book with maximum damage: the higher-pitched the screams from the reader, the better. There’s a sequel!
To ease the sting of said torture, can you confirm that Ben and Mars are endgame?
The story isn’t over! As for endgames, I guess we will see… ;)
About the author
Chloe Gong is a student at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English and international relations. During her breaks, she’s either at home in New Zealand or visiting her many relatives in Shanghai. Chloe has been known to mysteriously appear when “Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s best plays and doesn’t deserve its slander in pop culture” is chanted into a mirror three times. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @TheChloeGong, or check out her website at TheChloeGong.com.
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong is scheduled to release on Nov. 17, 2020.