Review: Ronit & Jamil by Pamela L. Laskin

I read Ronit & Jamil by Pamela L. Laskin for the Book Riot Reader Harder Challenge’s “Read an audiobook of poetry” category. It is a contemporary, poetic retelling of Romeo and Juliet about an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy living in modern Palestine. With the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the trope of star-crossed lovers becomes more understandable and heartbreaking.

I am a defender of Romeo & Juliet, both the characters and the play. Yes, they were kids. Yes, they were rash. But suicide is always in some element tragic, especially when it is young people who feel driven to commit the act in the face of overwhelming despair. It is easy for adults (or cynical teens) to scoff and look at all of the life left for these two but I wonder how many of them remember what it feels like to be a teen and to have these feelings for the first time. You don’t exist in a timeline when you’re young, you’re far more focused in the moment and if the ones you trust and have been told to follow are forcing you into a future you can’t stand, it’s normal to feel trapped. The big miscommunications are hard for modern audiences to understand when we can reach out and talk to someone in an instant instead of sending letters that can be mixed up or delayed. And when you break down the primary catalysts for catastrophe it is more about the meddling and influence of adults trying to guide and push Romeo & Juliet, regardless of theri intent, rather than just spontaneity or stupidity on the protagonists’ part. All of that being said, I was open to a modern take on a much lampooned story and I was not disappointed in the slightest.

The language of Ronit & Jamil is beautiful and I felt it was fairly easy to navigate. I did feel, much like when I read The Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish, that I would have gained more by being more educated about the conflict as well as the culture of both Israel and Palestine. I am very glad I had read Darwish’s work before so I had some level of familiarity with the topic overall. That being said, I don’t feel that anything I didn’t understand impeded my enjoyment of the work. As I said the language is beautiful and the stakes are much clearer and higher, which may help people who don’t like Romeo & Juliet to still enjoy this work. The author also provides a space for fathers of Ronit & Jamil to monologue about their inner thoughts and fears for their children which helps humanize the parents and validate their concerns.

The author makes an interesting choice to give Ronit & Jamil an open-ended but decidedly happier ending than the original play. It does not end in their mutual suicides but instead with them going over their plans to run away to America with the help of distant family members, mourning the losses they must bear and trying to give each other hope with thoughts of the future they may have together. It is possible to view the ending as just as tragic as the original with the couple doomed to the same fate as the original pair they represent. But I think that Laskin was making a choice to give these two some peace. In the play Romeo & Juliet’s lives, while fraught with interfamily conflict, is still a fairly privileged one. They’re both financially and socially well off and while their lives are not without challenges they have a much better prospect than most. Ronit & Jamil grow up in an area fraught with conflict far beyond anything Romeo & Juliet faced and their prospects are much more dire. I liked Laskin providing this chance at happiness for Ronit & Jamil, while leaving the ending open enough for the reader to consider and decide what they thought may happen on their own. And the reader knows that the life they try to have in America will be rife with new challenges and obstacles such as xenophobia, racism, and a struggle to survive. But they will have a chance and I think that a chance is the best anyone can hope for in the end.

Review: In the Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish and Sinan Antoon (translator)

This will be my last memoir post for the year, just in case anyone was growing tired of them and wants to go back to the realm of fiction. This is also the last book club review of the year because for December our genre was Palestinian authors and this autobiographical book of poetry was the winner.

I was thoroughly unaware of Darwish when I read In The Presence of Absence, because my literary education has been comprised of primarily British and American authors. At first I was nervous about taking on the work because I don’t have a strong grasp of the conflict between Israel and Palestine and was worried I would need to do a lot of research to connect with the book. While I know the book would impact me on a deeper level more consistently if I was more educated about this issue, the book still resonated in many ways. I don’t feel incredibly confident about writing a review of a work by an author who means such a great deal to his country so I will simply state that it was a deeply moving book and provided a voice from a country whose pain I’ve only seen discussed peripherally by white news anchors in clips from CNN and it’s a damn shame there isn’t more space given to own voices during these conflicts.

As written in the Amazon synopsis:

“One of the most transcendent poets of his generation, Darwish composed this remarkable elegy at the apex of his creativity, but with the full knowledge that his death was imminent. Thinking it might be his final work, he summoned all his poetic genius to create a luminous work that defies categorization. In stunning language, Darwish’s self-elegy inhabits a rare space where opposites bleed and blend into each other. Prose and poetry, life and death, home and exile are all sung by the poet and his other. On the threshold of im/mortality, the poet looks back at his own existence, intertwined with that of his people. Through these lyrical meditations on love, longing, Palestine, history, friendship, family, and the ongoing conversation between life and death, the poet bids himself and his readers a poignant farewell.”

 

Review: Observations by Marianne Moore

Observations by Marianne Moore is a book of poetry I picked up at Powell’s in Portland. It is also, I’m realizing, one of two books of poetry I read this year. Gotta beef those numbers up next year, I love poetry. A rare thing for english majors I’ve found, but that’s a conversation for another day.

I had never heard of Marianne Moore before spotting this book and picking it up on a whim. I don’t know how that’s possible due to the fact that according to the Amazon blurb and some quick research, “Marianne Moore’s Observations stands with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Ezra Pound’s early Cantos, and Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium as a landmark of modern poetry.” I have read The Waste Land and at least heard of Cantos (sorry Stevens, this is the first I’m hearing of you) so hearing this author I had never even heard in passing or read mentioned in a journal article was shocking.

Reviewing poetry is hard for me because I feel that poetry, maybe even more so than other forms of literature, are so personal and open to interpretation. I enjoyed reading it and there were parts that hit me and made me think, the way good poetry does. I was the poetry editor in my university’s short lived arts and lit journal but I’ve never been good at assessing what is Good Poetry. All I can really offer is her work made me feel things and it was an enjoyable read, even if I didn’t connect with all that was written, I connected with enough to be interested in reading more.