Sip and Shay first meet in prison. Shay is a journalism student and intern for FlipTheCover, an online publication with the kind of energy and vague coherence typical of a startup. This doesn’t seem to perturb her. It’s paid work, she is doing alright at school and her parents subsidise her lifestyle. Sip is Shay’s latest story but despite the prison official’s assurance that she is one of the ‘sweetest’ inmates, Sip shuts down the interview before it takes off, snapping, “How would a girl like you be able to write about not having anything and having to hustle your whole life…we’re not here to entertain Model C girls so they can go make their school projects colourful.” While she is aware of her relative privilege, Shay’s approach to her work and studies is one of mild and easily distracted curiosity—even boredom. Sip is also in her 20s. An ex-gang member and university dropout from the rougher, poorer side of the tracks, she is lean, mean and sexy. Three months after their initial encounter, Sip is released from prison and moves in with Shay, unbeknownst to the latter’s rent-paying parents. They are in love and their match proves to be heady and explosive.
Chwayita Ngamlana’s debut novel, If I Stay Right Here is a percussive, creatively chaotic and darkly entertaining venture that explores youth, intoxication, sexuality and identity formation in the digital age. This review uses intertextuality and discourse analysis to look at how the text constitutes the social identities of its protagonists. The relational processes under analysis are Sip and Shay’s dysfunctional romance and Shay’s journalistic education and practice in the contexts of gender, sexuality and class. The analysis includes the role of technology in these processes. Ngamlana’s text links these themes with popular culture through music, film, television, consumer product branding and the internet.
Sip’s name brings to mind the saying, “igama lakho likufanele” (literal translation: your name suits you). A bottle of Carling Black Label beer is always within reach. This drink makes her a champion and gives her the extra courage to appropriate and reinscribe masculinity; each sip makes her more of a ‘chap’ and less of a ‘pussy’. The brand sponsors a major South African men’s soccer tournament in real life thus making it a useful tool to explore the binary discourse around masculinity as power and femininity as subservience. Shay’s preferred drink is Hunter’s Dry. This correlates with her role as the femme and with the contemporary trend of feminisation in the marketing of cider. The hallmarks of domestic abuse manifest almost immediately after Sip moves in. Shay withdraws from her friends, places Sip’s needs first and even drives her to spend a night at a ‘cousin’s’ university residence and funds the meal for the night. Sip is a possessive and jealous lover who enforces her dominance with violence. She punches, insults and financially exploits the object of her affection, accusing Shay of sleeping with the men whom she interviews for work despite the fact that Sip is the philanderer.
The protagonists’ mimicry of toxic cis-heterosexual relationships in If I Stay Right Here echoes similar themes in popular music. The text references various artists, such as Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Hudson, Drake, Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Wayne, whose songs speak to romantic love as volatile and riddled with manipulation. Indeed, Sip and Shay came into their relationship like Miley Cyrus’ proverbial wrecking ball. Sip also weaponises her lower class status to get Shay to pay for their leisure activities and even at her birthday surprise braai, Shay’s friends take over.
They perform their (hyper) sexuality by partying to Jason Deluro ft. Snoop Dogg’s Wiggle and Beyonce’s Partition and their banter reinforces negative gender-based, black couple tropes. In one scene at the braai, a drunk Sip wants to smoke weed and when Shay quietly expresses her reticence, this exchange follows:
Sip: “Heeeh, baby, come on. My bois are here and it’s my birthday,”
Shay: “I just don’t want you passing out early. You know how weed makes you look even more drunk … I don’t want you to act crazy either … this day is going too well.”
Sip: “I’ll stop acting crazy when you give me a son.”
Shay: “What? What does that have to do with anything?”
Sip: “ A man straightens out when he has kids.”
In the context of their romantic love relationship, the sexual and gender identities that Sip and Shay express are produced socially. Although the text does not interrogate this in detail, it is possible to use it as a point of departure when exploring the discursive production of these identities.
The (mis)Education of Shay
If I Stay Right Here was published during a period in which the higher education system in South Africa was facing significant existential challenges. #FeesMustFall dominated the headlines but it was also accompanied by calls to transform the academy in terms of institutional culture and the curriculum. 4IR had gained prominence as a buzzword and scholars and communicators at universities duly used the term in theorising their research and marketing their institutions respectively. Decolonisation in the digital age remains a topic of debate despite the methodological displacement brought on by the Covid 19 pandemic and other political dramas in higher education. In the novel, the protagonist learns difficult, unresolved lessons about power.
Shay’s professional and educational development takes place during an era in which content creators have established lucrative careers on YouTube and Instagram. TikTok is a hit in the future and the term ‘influencer’ is not yet ubiquitous. Shay’s professor notes that celebrity culture has become the staple of current affairs journalism because “the world has evolved into a fickle, shallow place and the news is moving right along with it”. While she is not thrilled about this, she does not pursue her studies with a sense of revolutionary purpose. The stories that she investigates for FlipTheCover reinforce the professor’s observations. She sources most of them digitally and they are typically about people who gain fame via internet notoriety or those with non-traditional sexual tastes.
Ngamlana uses the fist as a metaphor for Shay’s intersectional encounters with power in her personal, social and educational environments. “In this place a fist represents strength, freedom and empowerment.” Shay reflects on her introduction to the fist at school by way of the headmistress slamming it on the desk to emphasise important lessons in the syllabus of life: facts and behaviours, power to the people and the sanctity of the nation’s unifying superhero. As she comes of age, Sip delivers her love with a fist. Ngamlana writes,
“Power is the thing that caused my face to swell.”
Concluding note: Digital technology, literature and time
The digital age has enabled communication in unprecedented ways. Not only has it disrupted the quality and intensity of human interaction, it has impacted the ways in which we engage with literary texts and with the production of those texts themselves. If I Stay Here is a novel of a particular time in the digital age. Developments in technology disrupt our perceptions and experiences of time. This adds further complexity to how we theorise decoloniality in literary criticism and in the practice of literary journalism. A temporal reading of this novel therefore presents unique opportunities for further inquiry into the construction of identities, human interactions and knowledge production into the second quarter of the 21st century.
Author: Chwayita Ngamlana | Book title: If I Stay Right Here | Publisher: Blackbird Books (2017)