If I Stay Right Here
Sip is hardened by her past. She is an ex-prisoner, gangster, and was gang raped earlier in her life. But is this reason enough for her continuing violent behaviour? Shay is a young and soft-mannered journalist from a middle-class family. She meets Sip in prison when doing research for one of her stories. It is through her encounter with Sip that Shay finds herself and drums up courage “to come out”. Theirs is an unlikely partnership that becomes a passionate, yet destructive love.
Sip’s and Shay’s is a typical abusive relationship. Shay systematically gives away her power to Sip. She does so already in their first encounter when interviewing Sip in prison. So, although Sip is behind bars, she is aggressive and puts Shay on defense. The signs are all there. When they move in together after Sip’s release from prison, although she is the one supporting Sip, Shay gives in on just about everything. She claims that she “wasn’t in the mood for a fight…(and prefers) to keep peace”. This posture plays into Sip’s game. Like all domestic violence victims, Shay blames herself for Sip’s violent behaviour and thinks “maybe I pushed her too hard”. Shay placates her by showering her with love. In the process she digs herself deeper and deeper into a pit of Sip’sviolence. Sip “owns” her. As a journalist Shay is expected to be out there and interacting with people. This unsettles Sip. Shay then finds herself caught between her job and jealous lover.
On the other hand, Sip uses her violent past as a scapegoat. She does not want to take accountability for her behaviour: “I don’t know what that was…It won’t happen again, I promise. Why do you talk like I’m some kind of monster?…I know my temper gets in the way. I can’t lose you.”
In If I Stay Right Here, Ngamlana pushes the boundaries in many respects, particularly her writing style, language and subject matter. She pushes the reader out of their comfort zone right from the start. The language is expressive and explosive. Through both prose and dialogue, I could visualise and actually feel Sip’s volatile character, and Shay’s meekness as she constantly walks on egg shells around her partner. Ngamlana forces the reader to be an active participant in the storyline and to take obvious sides in the wake of Sip’s controlling and selfish character.
The writing style is dense and tense, representative of the complex, dangerous and destructive relationship between Sip and Shay. In the end I was left wondering where one draws the line between love and control.
Ngamlana succeeds in highlighting that violence and abuse in LGTB relationships can be a reality. This is unsettling for me because it challenges our simplistic understanding of gender-based violence as necessarily only experienced in heterogeneous relationships. She reminds us that gender relations are in fact about power relations. I was left wondering whether in fact the concept of intimate partner relations is more appropriate. But I was still unsettled by Ngamlana’s presentation of her lesbian characters as necessarily violent.
If I Stay Right Here is a challenging read. Be prepared to be pushed out of your comfort zone. I recommend it to those in abusive relationships, and to those around people in such situations.