While pursuing my master’s degree in English from K-State, I became interested in the concept of retellings as a narrative device. Why are there some stories we seem insistent to revisit? What is it about these stories that demands a fresh perspective?
I wrestled with these questions over the course of my graduate studies. I don’t think there’s a definitive answer, but I did come up with a food analogy that helped me understand the appeal of retellings: they are like comfort food with a twist. They’re traditional favorites we’ve come to depend on, but a new element (or many) has been added to the recipe. Whatever these new elements might be, they allow us to see — or, if you’re still following the analogy, to taste — what’s familiar in fresh and exciting ways.
Retellings have become increasingly popular in the young adult space, with two recent titles updating two classics of English literature: William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice.”
In “These Violent Delights,” author Chloe Gong relocates the drama of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy from Verona to the streets of 1920s Shanghai. The sprawling city is run by two rival gangs, the White Flowers and the Scarlet Gang, whose territory battles often end in bloodshed. At opposite ends of this blood feud stand Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai, who must work together to unite their respective gangs against a disturbing “madness” infecting Shanghai citizens.
While you might guess how Roma and Juliette’s relationship will unfold based off your knowledge of “Romeo & Juliet,” Gong subverts our expectations right off the bat, establishing Juliette and Roma not as star-crossed lovers, but as former star-crossed lovers. This deviation from the original story adds a real sense of tension between these characters that will get readers invested in their relationship.
Fans of Shakespeare’s play will delight (pardon the pun) in the Easter eggs Gong nestles into her retelling and admire how, despite setting the novel nearly a century removed from our present, the story feels modernized in its discussions of colonialism and inclusivity.
From 20th century Shanghai to modern-day Brooklyn, Ibi Zoboi’s “Pride” offers readers a “remix” of Austen’s 1813 classic, “Pride & Prejudice.” The novel centers on 17-year-old Zuri Benitez, who has big dreams of attending Howard University and developing her poetry.
Apart from her literary passions, Zuri has immense love for her big family and their Brooklyn neighborhood, which is becoming increasingly gentrified.
The novel’s central conflict kicks in with the arrival of the Darcys, an upper-class Black family who move into the renovated mansion across from Zuri’s apartment building. Zuri immediately clashes with Darius Darcy, the youngest of her new neighbors, and what follows is the classic enemies-to-lovers relationship previously immortalized by Austen’s protagonists, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.
Zoboi updates Austen’s observations on class with timely commentary on gentrification and organically infuses specific elements of Zuri’s Haitian-Dominican heritage into the story. Additionally, the novel never forgets its teen audience, injecting the narrative with scenes of romance and college woes that will ring true for young readers.
Though both of these novels are classified as retellings, it should be noted that one does not have to be familiar with “Romeo & Juliet” or “Pride & Prejudice” before enjoying these newer titles. Their authors seem keenly aware of this, taking the bones of their inspired texts to rebuild tried and true stories into something wholly new. In fact, it might be fun for teens to start with these titles first before tackling the originals.
You can find print copies of both titles at the Manhattan Public Library, and digital copies are available through Sunflower eLibrary.
Dustin Vann is a library assistant at Manhattan Public Library.