Jabulile Bongiwe Ngwenya has unleashed a work of fiction telling the story of young people from middle-class SA in a unique way, not unlike Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut.
The protagonist is Tebogo, a university student from a well-to- do family. Her first sexual experience — which was nonconsensual at the age of 13 — left her angry and confused. As a young woman, she is coming to terms with her sexual orientation. She finds expression through hip-hop and shares this love with her band-mates and longtime friends Andile, Welile and Siphiwe, whose homophobic tendencies are the most obvious in the group.
While dealing with the ups and downs of early adulthood and romantic relationships, their passion for hip-hop and aspirations for stardom dominate their lives while their studies take a back seat. Throw in alcohol, drugs and sex, and the stage is set for explosive reading.
Tebogo is regarded as one of the boys; this extends to her predatory sexual behaviour and she poses a serious threat to the sexual conquests of her band-mates. She talks tough and she plays rough. She is a heartbreaker who competes to be the big “dawg” like the main Casanova in the band, her cousin Andile. As a result, she can’t be faithful to Ayanda, who loves her dearly. Her devastated father hopes that her lesbianism is a phase.
On campus, though, she is a source of intrigue.
Just as her hip-hop band SWAT is about to hit the big time, tragedy strikes. Tebogo is forced to grapple with what it means to be a woman who loves other women in a world that views her as inferior.
Ngwenya takes readers into the world of young black people fortunate to get the opportunity to receive tertiary education but who then have to manage the expectations of their parents and families while trying to figure out their own hopes and dreams for their futures. The novel exposes a tumultuous world of aggressive sex, alcohol and drug abuse — and how disturbingly normal and accessible it has become.
“Everything and now”, is the motto of the young people in the book, and “fuck those who stand in my way”. Parents of teenagers may balk at the contents in this book, but this is what young South Africans are experiencing, and this is what many of them are doing with their lives.
The influence of American hip- hop is evident in the way that young South Africans dress, speak and behave. They add their own local flavour to this form of expression; but weakness is still regarded as feminine and women exist to be sexually exploited. Strength is aggressive, male and phallic. Obscenities are the lingua franca.
When Ayanda pleads with Tebogo to be more loving towards her and to make more room for her in her life, Tebogo’s response is, “Love is for pussies, bitches, man. None of that shit is real.”
“…this novel suggests that young people do have the power to change their destiny and society…”
It is easy to lose sympathy for Tebogo as she negotiates her way through the world. She tends to behave like a spoilt, angry young man, but then one realises that she’s trying to protect the little girl who lost her female role models early in life.
I Ain’t Yo Bitch is a brave and candid exploration of youth and sexuality in SA.
A BA Honours English Literature graduate, Ngwenya uses all her names to distinguish herself as she is not the only Jabu Ngwenya who is a writer. She insists that although both she and Tebogo keep dogs as pets and sport shaven heads, the similarities end there. She says her use of obscene language in the novel was necessary, as this is the language young people understand; that they use when communicating with each other; and which best expresses the violence against women that is prevalent among the youth.
Ngwenya chose to set the novel at Wits University because of the institution’s vibrant student body. While the students in the novel may be studying at a prestigious institution, their dominating desires are directed at the present, getting everything now. The debut author wanted to use her novel to explore the consequences that the main characters have to live with, as a challenge to young people to ask themselves whether they want to fulfil immediate, base desires or to resist temptation and work hard for a better future. She says the overt expression of sexuality in the novel is deliberate as she wants society to view sexuality and sexual organs — particularly the vagina — as “normal parts of the body” with their own specific functions, so as to remove the shame that is usually associated with them.
She hopes that through the removal of taboos associated with female sex organs particularly, society will come one step closer to treating women with dignity. Sexual abuse perpetrated by a close relative is another topic that rears its ugly head. Yet, this novel also suggests that young people do have the power to change their destiny and society. When one looks back in time, many a driving force for change throughout the world was a young person. Ngwenya believes that this is no different for SA.
Tebogo learns that power does not necessarily have to find its expression through sexually aggressive behaviour towards women. But we also learn the painful lesson that women are not necessarily natural nurturers.
The author, Jabulile Bongiwe Ngwenya.
I Ain’t Yo Bitch attempts to achieve balance, without blame or expectation. It is a novel that explores how we have to adjust our roles to deal with the changes that our circumstances bring to our lives, without changing the essence of who we are as human beings.
It is difficult to empathise with Tebogo at the beginning of the novel. She is abrasive and ashamed of being a woman. Despite her intelligence, she doesn’t realise that she can’t call herself a lover of anyone if she doesn’t love herself. As the novel ends, there is a sense that she has come to terms with her life and wants to turn it in the right direction.
The blurb on I Ain’t Yo Bitch tells its young target market that “your parents won’t want you reading it”. But the challenge to readers is more than slipping this novel under their parents’ radar — they then have read it without judgment and read it in order to understand why the special, bright young characters are the way they are.
I Ain’t Yo Bitch is published by Paper Bag, a new kid on the block, which aims to publish books that are “revolutionary and relevant to young adult South Africans”. In an industry that continues to publish irrelevant material while moaning that “young (black) South Africans don’t read”, this has come not a moment too soon.
Originally published in www.theweekender.co.za.
I Ain’t Yo Bitch will be on sale at Joburg Pride on Saturday 3rd October. Buy the book, and meet the publishers at their stall.