With Leo C. Akuwudike’s debut novel, Romeo & Julio & Friends, the romantic tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is given a skilful contemporary LGBTQ+ makeover that breathes new life into Shakespeare's original.

In this exclusive article, the British Nigerian author explains his motivation for shifting the celebrated work into a contemporary, London-based setting, and reflects on the importance of LGBTQ+ literature to British society.

By Leo C. Akuwudike

A claim to a right to be present in this day and age as queer is a privilege. To many it is a joy, a freedom of expression, and a feeling deep inside that cannot be denied.

Laws regarding homosexuality in the UK have progressively changed over the last 60 years, but slowly. Homosexuality was only legalised in England and Wales in 1967, civil partnerships were only introduced in 2004, and same-sex marriages became legal less than a decade ago, in 2014.

Before 1967, being gay was something that could be punishable by imprisonment. Tragically, on a global level we are seeing an alarming reversal in LGBTQ+ rights within certain countries. As such, we can never take for granted that that the same may not happen here one day.

I pray this never happens but irrespective of legislation, those who identify as LGBTQ+ must never, and will never, live in shame. We will not hide in fear of others who, in reality, are the ones who are truly afraid.

With the aim of celebrating this community, which shines bright with excellence and beauty, I have written a new novel that reimagines William Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet as a gay love story.

Titled Romeo & Julio & Friends, it introduces new gay characters Romeo Moses, a 29-year-old white British and Italian architect and model, and Julio Clifford, a successful gay black British and South African designer newly returned to London after seven years abroad.

True to Shakespeare’s famous line from A Midsummer Night's Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth”, Romeo and Julio face many dramatic twists and turns as their lives – and those of their friends – unfold.

By reworking the Bard’s 1597 play, bringing it into modern times, I was keen to reflect the 21st century-realities of the LGBTQ+ community, both in London and throughout Britain, and their relationships with the straight community.

Romeo & Julio & Friends by Leo C. Akuwudike retains all the drama and emotion of Shakespeare’s original while injecting an ultimately uplifting tone to events.
Romeo & Julio & Friends by Leo C. Akuwudike retains all the drama and emotion of Shakespeare’s original while injecting an ultimately uplifting tone to events.

Though the novel deals with instances of homophobia, one such attack which shockingly leaves Romeo in a coma, what hopefully comes through is our love for one another, and our society’s widespread tolerance.

It shows just how far we’ve come in the last few decades, and is a far cry from Shakespeare’s time, when being homosexual could carry a death penalty.

My main theme for the story was Romeo and Julio finding each other, first as friends then progressing into a passionate relationship that endures despite the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, again as Shakespeare famously put it.

There are those who wish, malevolently, to break up their relationship, just as was the case for Romeo and Juliet, but the novel showcases the power of friendship, trust, and loyalty above all other things, and in a way that I hope will inspire our youth for many years to come.

Having studied Romeo and Juliet back in my school days, I would be honoured if my novel one day entered the national syllabus, underlining to young minds how love is still love regardless of the sex or gender identification of the lovers themselves.

Certainly, Britain deserves emotional LGBTQ+ content that celebrates the good rather than the norm and I thank you dearly, William Shakespeare, for writing a story for the ages that continues to win our hearts and prove a continued source of creative inspiration.

The rise of LGBTQ+ literature has been, as with gay rights, a slow and rocky ascent.

For example, acclaimed author E. M. Forster’s daring homosexual love story, Maurice, is now widely considered a classic and has been adapted for the big screen by James Ivory, but it was only published posthumously.

Writing it back in 1913, Forster felt so ashamed of the novel that it didn’t see the light of day until 1971, a year after his passing.

Times and attitudes have, thankfully, changes and in the last few decades there has been a distinct growth in the number of LGBTQ+ books being released.

Leo C. Akuwudike’s confident debut, Romeo & Julio & Friends explores the lives of two young gay men, Romeo Moses and Julio Clifford, whose burgeoning relationship is complicated by former partners, dilemmas of loyalty, and homophobia.
Leo C. Akuwudike’s confident debut, Romeo & Julio & Friends explores the lives of two young gay men, Romeo Moses and Julio Clifford, whose burgeoning relationship is complicated by former partners, dilemmas of loyalty, and homophobia.

Some, such as Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, with its story of love between two working-class cowboys in the 1960s. have become iconic treasures among the reading public.

Another, more recent novel that has enjoyed notable success is coming-of-age story Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, which was adapted into the 2018 movie Love, Simon.

It spins an unforgettable tale of a closeted teenage boy, Simon, who is outed by a fellow student for his secret gay relationship.

I have been inspired by authors such as Juno Dawson, who has deservedly done so well in the Sunday Times Bestsellers List, Alice Oseman, and Akwaeke Emezi.

I also admire fellow Black British writers such as Paul Mendez, who has maintained authenticity within the gay community, and Bernadine Evaristo with her history-making, Booker Prize-winning LGBTQ+ novel Girl, Woman, Other.

Yet for every breakthrough success, many worthy LGBTQ+ novels – ones that speak to all readers, be they straight or gay – still fail to get the wider, crossover recognition and appreciation they deserve.

Whether you are, or identify as, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, agender, bigender, androgynous, genderfluid or freely shine through in drag, please know that my first novel was written for you to be free, to laugh openly, to cry happy tears of relief, and to dance in the street with no regret, no fear, no hate and all the love in the world. 

And to the majority who are straight, know that LGBTQ+ books still speak loudly of themes and issues common to us all. They are worth your time in the same way that those written in the centuries before, while speaking of different cultures to your own, warrant investigation. A good book is a good read regardless.

With Romeo & Julio & Friends, I am proud to have contributed one more book to an expanding LGBTQ+ movement, and I look forward to seeing its continued march into the mainstream.

Romeo & Julio & Friends by Leo C. Akuwudike is out now in paperback and eBook formats via publisher Austin Macauley, priced £7.79 and £3.50 respectively. The book is also available via Amazon. For more information, visit Leo C. Akuwudike’s website or follow the author on Instagram.


An Exclusive Extract From Romeo & Julio & Friends

Romeo & Julio & Friends is a stunning debut that puts author Leo C. Akuwudike firmly among today's most exciting Black-British authors including Paul Mendez and Caleb Azumah Nelson. Here is an exclusive extract, where Romeo writes a letter to his soulmate, Julio.

Please read this with a warm heart and enjoy every word. I don’t want you to write back as there is no need. You have already proved to me how much you love me. When you get this tell me you love me and hold me tight in your embrace.

I want you to know that you are my love and my best friend. I am falling deeper and deeper in love with you each and every day. If ever times are low, and we struggle to communicate just know that I will always try with you. I won’t give up on us now that I know that we are meant to be.

The reason I cheated with Warren was because I had an insecurity that you loved Jake more than me when that wasn’t the case. It was a breakdown in communication on my part. I didn’t respect the fact that he was a love that you lost, and we will never really know what could have been if he were to be alive today. I never loved Warren and I am sorry that I betrayed you.

Please forgive me for being mad at you about Guppy and blaming you when he set his sights on our family and preyed on us. I am also sorry for not being understanding about Hassan and what he was like to you when you were younger. I would never treat you that way and at the time I should have been more supportive.

You are perfect to me, and you are a good person. Hassan told me that “You are not the loving kind,” and I disagree. I believe that you love too much. I love how you see the good in mostly everything.

When we first met, I think fate brought the two of us together to meet on the Underground before meeting again with Poppy. I am glad that she was a part of me because she brought me to you. Thank you for convincing me to seek help after Poppy and I am now a greater man for it.

For us to work as a couple, I promise not to be distant, and I need you to tell me what is going on in that beautiful mind of yours. We need to communicate better in order for us to survive as lovers. Our love is untouchable and unbreakable. I promise you that no one will love you and feel how I feel for you as much as I do.

Julio, I promise to love, honour, and protect you from now going forward.

Yours respectfully,


A year passed – a blissful year, where finally Romeo and Julio got it right. They went out together, both alone and with their friends. They socialised, they spent time with the kids – both the twins and Romeo’s other children as one big family. There was work and holidays and more work and more holidays and then finally for the third and final time, Romeo’s wedding proposal to Julio.

It was a simple ceremony, just a small cottage with their family and friends and they looked deep into each other’s eyes and said, “I do.”

They kissed and flower petals fell from the roof of the cottage, showering them in beauty and a lovely scent while they laughed, and their twins hugged them.

While everyone clapped and cheered, Sionne whispered to Elle, “They’ve been through so much, but they made it. They are so much stronger than they think they are.”

“If anybody deserves to be happy, it’s them,” Elle agreed, thinking not only of all the trouble they’d gone through but all the barriers. Here they were, an interracial homosexual couple in a world set against them and they’d made it.

Josh walked over and put his arm around Sionne. “Had their ups and downs and are still together.” Sionne turned her head and kissed Josh.

Later that night as the reception ended, Romeo and Julio hurried out and got into the wedding car together. “It’s our day,” Romeo said.

Julio snuggled his head against his shoulder. “Yes, it is. You’re my husband, Romeo. I love you.”

The two kissed and at last, in peace, Romeo and Julio drove into the sunset and their own happily ever after.

by for www.femalefirst.co.uk
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