Outtakes from “Ronit and Jamil”

We at YARN are thrilled to welcome Pam Laskin, poet, lecturer, and author of the brand spanking new YA novel in verse, “Ronit and Jamil,” a Palestinian/Israeli retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Read on as Pam shares more about the story as well as some excerpts.

By Pam Laskin

There is no story more definingly adolescent than Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It is not only a tale of two young lovers and their passion, but also one of the adults whose blind intransigence serves unwittingly to destroy this love. In a world of feuding national and ideological viewpoints and territorial claims, this narrative renews itself with heartbreaking regularity, and brings collective trauma to the painfully detailed, individual level again and again as story.

“Ronit and Jamil” articulates a conflict between two families struggling, like all the people who inhabit their land, to coexist when the convergence of their goals and claims has historically been all but impossible. This book imagines two star-crossed lovers, the Israeli Ronit and her Palestinian counterpart, Jamil. This reinvention, coming on the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, demonstrates again the paradox facing every generation as it emerges into its own light: finding a future in full adult awareness while rejecting the inherited burdens of the past.

Ronit

I go with him to work, my Abba
it’s summer
heat
a leech
an ulcer.

Papa has pills, elixirs
to heal the sick, the wounded,

first stop
Mohammed in East Jerusalem.
“Damn good doctor,” he tells me.

“Oh, he has a son
don’t look at him.”

Jamil

I go with him to work
my Abi,
sizzling summer heat
clings to my back.

He waits for Chaim, the pharmacist,
to give him medicines-
magic
to heal the sick, the wounded.

“A decent man,”
Abi says.
“Oh, he has a daughter
Don’t look at her.”

In addition to the familiar identification of Shakespeare’s young pair as archetypal lovers, the play ascribes different poetic forms to specific characters, sometimes changing the form as the character develops. Romeo’s sonnets, for example, progress in the sophistication of their diction as his love and maturity unfold; and just as ROMEO AND JULIET depends on poetic dramatic structure, so, too, does RONIT AND JAMIL. The central conflict of feuding families, intrinsic to the original story, is transformed to encompass the political climate in the Middle East. The dramatic tension in the narrative, in which the fates of Israeli Ronit and Palestinian Jamil are entwined, is compounded by the relationship between their fathers: Ronit’s father, a pharmacist, supplies medication to the clinic of Jamil’s physician father in East Jerusalem.

Ronit and Jamil add another dimension, in that there is a far larger political challenge, beyond the world of the Montagues and Capulets. In the end, the reader must grasp the real complexities of this conflict, and this can best be served by unsparing honesty about what it is doing to the youth of that land.

Ronit’s First Glance

Who are you?
You could be my brother
(though I have no brother)
but the way I feel
when I look
into those dreamy hazel eyes
of yours.

Arab boy
with your gaze
my skin
slips off of
my heart.

Jamil’s First Glance

Who are you?
You could be my sister
with your blue eyes
and the curls
cascading past your shoulders.

Israeli girl,
I know you are looking
at the muscles in my arms.
(I work with weights most days)
which makes me feel like a man
something my Abi
laughs at.

The novel is not just a love story, but a narrative that struggles with the complicated political, social, geographic and psychological realities and contradictions inherent in place. Life is bewildering, and is there any possibility for a safe zone in a world where the enemy is a mere invention? Indeed, that safe anchor is found in love, which transcends the stereotypes. I believe Ronit and Jamil’s very existence and relationship is testament to the fact that peace is a viable alternative to war. The two lovers will bring sanity to the adult world, but first they must discover themselves.


Pamela L. Laskin is a lecturer in the English Department at the City College of New York, where she directs the Poetry Outreach Center and teaches Children’s Writing and Literature. Poetry collections include: REMEMBERING FIREFLIES and SECRETS OF SHEETS (Plain View Press); THE BONSAI CURATOR and VAN GOGH’S EAR; (Cervena Barva Press), DARING DAUGHTERS/DEFIANT DREAMS (A Gathering of Tribes) and THE PLAGIARIST (Dos Madres Press). Her published children’s books include VISITATION RITES (Diversion Press) and HOMER THE LITTLE STRAY CAT (Red Balloon Press). RONIT AND JAMIL, A Palestinian/Israeli ROMEO AND JULIET in verse will be published by Harper Collins in 2017, and has received outstanding reviews from Kirkus Review and Publisher’s Weekly. Follow her on twitter@RonitandJamil and follow her blog.

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