This is the second book I’ve finished for the #12DaysofDiversity retellings readathon. It’s a free verse retelling of Romeo & Juliet, featuring Damien and Junice, a pair of black teens in Harlem. Their families don’t have a feud, but they come from very different worlds. Damien’s parents have pinned all their hopes on him going to college and staying off of the Street, and he’s been accepted to Brown. The last thing his mother wants is him sleeping with a random girl and ruining his life (in her mind). Junice, on the other hand, is trying to keep her family together after her mother was sentenced to a significant amount of time in prison for drug related offenses. Regardless of family issues, they meet and fall for each other.
Damien and Junice’s story is told in free verse, and from varying point of views. We get to hear from Damien and Junice, but also from their mothers and their fathers, as well as Junice’s ailing grandmother and her sister Melissa. The parents have had their own experiences and have thoughts on the teenagers falling in love. Damien’s mother says “He’ll think it’s love. I know better.” She doesn’t want him to ruin his life by falling for the wrong girl and possibly getting her pregnant. On the flip side, Junice’s mother, in jail, says “She’ll think it’s love. I know there is no such thing.” Her life has taught her that real love doesn’t exist. These views frame the story and set up the romantic feelings that the teenagers start to have for each other, and the way they begin to think about their lives changing. For Junice, she hopes that Damien can serve as a line of support, which she is desparately needing, as she says: “Can you become/The hope I need?/Can you help me be/More than it is written in my future/Or past?” Damien sees Junice as someone apart from and different from the people he knows. He sees her as a way to deepen his life and make it more meaningful as he says: “She brings me to places I haven’t been/Before, other sides of far horizons.” The prose used to describe all of these viewpoints is beautiful and desperate, and it really made me feel for all of the characters in the story.
What really stood out to me in this book, however, was Junice. She’s a very strong and independent woman, who’s grown up long before she should’ve had to. As a sixteen-year-old, she now feels responsible for her eleven-year-old sister, and is forced to grow up even more. Even though she feels for Damien, she’s afraid to let herself trust him and fully embrace his place in her life. She’s too concerned with survival to really understand that what he feels for her or what he sees in her. Her parts of the book were my favorite, and were the most well-written, in my opinion. She’s struggling to break free from her family’s history and legacy and frustrated that the world won’t let her, and keeps writing her off because of her family’s criminal history and because of her Blackness.
As a white woman, I can never fully understand where these characters are coming from. I’ll never have their experiences, and I have benefited from privilege that they have not. However, I can empathize as a human, particularly when Junice is struggling to be heard by a social worker who keeps pushing her off. She points out to the woman that they are both Black women. The social worker brushes her off and says that it’s not relevant. Junice’s sense of betrayal and hurt as she is torn down by another government institution is palpable, and perhaps heightened by the similarities she sees between her and the social worker. The writing here is so good that I can feel her emotions seeping through her words, even if I have no shared experiences from which to draw. Every time Junice was profiled because of what she looked like and her family history I was reminded of the legacy of racism in this country that is still not rectified (or even close to being rectified), and it tore at my heart. The fact that the book could make me think about these issues highlights its importance.
Overall, this book was a great read. As a retelling, it obviously bears similarities to Romeo & Juliet, but is a well done story in its own right. The interplay of story, verse, and social issues throughout really sucked me in. It’s also a very quick read, and well worth your time.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Read Street Love? Will you? Let me know in the comments below!