Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
Culture > Entertainment


This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UC Berkeley chapter.

Young adult literature is often unfairly criticized for being frivolous, trivial, and lacking substance by critics and the taste hierarchy set by the literary establishment. But perhaps the criticism is less about the genre and more about its audience of teen readers, specifically teen female readers. For teen girls, whose interests are often belittled (such as pop culture stigma against young female fans of artists like One Direction), young adult fiction (also known as YA fiction) is one of the rare spaces in which their experiences and struggles are not only taken seriously but thoroughly explored. And despite YA’s reputation for being trashy reads, These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong proves this assumption wrong. 

As an #ownvoices author from a marginalized group, writing from their own background and culture, Gong delivers genuine representation and authenticity in storytelling. Her novel embodies the social awareness most young adults have and want to see reflected in the books they read. By tackling themes of colonization and identity, Gong’s cultural knowledge of the city aids her in writing for the demographic she caters to.

In this Romeo and Juliet retelling, Gong displays talent through beautiful prose and riveting writing, with an ability to transport you back to glittering and treacherous 1920s Shanghai, a deceivingly glamorous yet sinister city. Nevertheless, her greatest strength is her ability to create and explore nuanced characters and themes. Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov are ex-lovers and heirs from rival gangs with an intense blood feud. It’s 1926, and the political climate in Shanghai is tense as their city is being torn apart by foreigners. 

Shortly after flapper girl Juliette returns from her studies in America, madness spreads across the city, deaths stack up, and rumors of a monster spread. Juliette, heir of the Scarlet Gang, and Roma, heir of The White Flowers, are forced to put aside their gangs’ blood feud to save their people. With a focus on the social and political issues of the time, what lies at the heart of this story is not a love story but instead a story about a girl’s commitment to her family, her country, and her struggle with identity. 

Juliette’s characterization as ruthless, calculated, ambitious, and fiercely protective of her people places her as a classic YA protagonist determined to save the people she loves. The conflicts she faces include universal problems teen girls encounter, from romantic to familial conflicts, but her identity as an American-educated Chinese woman presents a different set of struggles, such as conflicting identities, racism, and the ever-growing threat of colonization infesting her home. 

YA is often seen as inferior because adult writers, reviewers, and publishers deem it as such. It is often seen as “unacademic” and littered with overused, cliche tropes, but there is nothing unacademic and unsophisticated about a book that deftly uses a retelling of Romeo and Juliet to touch upon themes pertaining to the young female experience with added social commentary.

It would be remiss not to mention the fact that there is genuine criticism about YA, especially in the way diverse characters are at times added onto a story for no meaningful reason other than token diversity.

But this is a generalization of all YA novels, and Gong achieves representation so expertly because she writes from her own background and culture. YA fiction often includes highly criticized tropes such as “the chosen one” where teens are tasked with saving the world from destruction.

But the criticism of these tropes boils down to the way society is uncomfortable with the notion that teens are the ones saving the world rather than more powerful adult figures. In fact, both Juliette and Roma’s parents disregard the contagious monster despite being the leaders of the two biggest gangs because they are too comfortable and prideful in their power to believe it may affect them. “These Violent Delights” makes a bold statement by tasking the younger generation with the burden of trying to salvage the world and fight for solutions. It’s parallel to real life in the way young adults have increasingly participated in social and political discussions to fight for the future they want while those in power, who are usually older, uphold the status quo. 

Gong also unapologetically weaves in social commentary through thoroughly researched historical context. While many stories romanticize the 1920s, notably known as the Roaring Twenties, Gong shows us the glamour and flair of this era while addressing the rampant colonization during this period. Throughout the book, we are shown the effects of Western imperialism and the insidious way foreigners slowly carve a place into a land that is not theirs, from the way Shanghai is split into settlements, with each foreign-controlled land excluding the local people of Shanghai. And because These Violent Delights presents the effects of imperialism through the eyes of a teenager, the stakes seem even higher. 

Juliette is loyal and devoted to her people, and as a young woman who refuses to step back and let foreigners take over land that has belonged to her people for centuries, she is all the more determined to solve the mystery of the contagious monster and fight back. Gong even uses the contagious monster infecting the city as a metaphor for the cruelty and greed underneath Shanghai’s shiny exterior. The novel argues that Western imperialism slowly and insidiously seeping into the city is as much, if not more, of a threat than the monster itself. 

Juliette also represents children of diasporas who struggle between two cultures, a struggle that YA fiction increasingly and successfully explores often through the eyes of authors who are children of diasporas themselves. Juliette chooses to wear beady flapper dresses unlike the traditional Chinese qipao as a reflection of the way Asian people were made to feel inferior from the Western influence which slowly etched itself into the city.

She recounts the segregation and racism she experienced in America and alienation from not feeling Chinese enough in Shanghai, exasperated by the loss of her Chinese name as others began to only know her as “Juliette.” This causes her to feel like she has to keep up the image of the “American girl” as she grapples with feeling like a foreigner in her own home and becoming more Americanized to be seen and heard. Through these internal conflicts, Gong, who is a child of the diaspora herself, holds agency through Juliette’s character by exploring the nature of her dual identity while critiquing colonialism.

These Violent Delights is a story told from the perspective of a teenage girl to a demographic primarily made up of other teenage girls. Young adults are the demographic that most desire diverse books, which then creates fewer barriers for diverse authors to tell their authentic stories. In turn, YA fiction leaves space for authors to explore diverse themes in a way that is accessible to anyone, not limited to their own demographic. This creates an opportunity for authors of color, like Gong, who are vastly underrepresented in the adult fiction genre, to explore their own culture and background.

This is all to say that young adult fiction is less of a genre and more of a demographic. Its books range from fantasy to romance to thrillers, unified by its focus on teenage protagonists and its inclusion of diverse voices and themes. In YA books, there is a focus on the complex struggles teens face before adulthood, and the wide array of social and political discussions they partake in. In a society where literary gatekeepers deem these stories as inferior in a way that is elitist and gendered, it is paramount that authors unapologetically tell these stories, with or without the approval of literary critics and society. 

Chloe Gong isn’t Shakespeare and never will be. But perhaps she has built her own equally powerful legacy. 

You can find These Violent Delights at your local Barnes and Noble.

Kelly Zhao

UC Berkeley '23

Kelly is a senior at UC Berkeley studying Economics with a minor in Journalism. In her free time, you can usually find her bingeing shows on Netflix, exploring food places, traveling, or eating outrageous amounts of bread.