The story of the boy child, his emotions, and his evolution is the stuff one would be hard-pressed to find among shelves lined with spines of fantasies, Literotica, historical dramas, thrillers, and murder mysteries. I say this with confidence because the poverty of the Black boy’s narrative wouldn’t be profound to the point of it hardly being written about.
The silencing of boys remains an unpunished crime and an unaddressed issue that prevails through mottos like: “Indoda ayikhali” (men don’t cry) and “K’mele uqine” (you have to be strong) in situations where the healthiest course of action would be letting him bleed naturally to make way for wholesome healing and growth.
It’s always a thing of boys being spoken of as if their experiences are apart from who they are, rather than the experience being a part of them. The recognition of these injustices on a boy child, myself included, makes Thandeka Makhubu’s Where We Belong a confrontational debut that dares to question how boys should be.
Now, I am not the one for spoilers, but this is a tale which chronicles two young Black boys, Banele and Jabulani, both with their respective daddy problems, who forge a romantic connection and find solace in each other’s worlds. The twist is that these worlds become increasingly unstable and unsettling with every unraveling. In as much as themes of unhealthy masculinity, the impact of absent fathers, and gender identity are vitals of the book, Where We Belong is an all-encompassing opus.
Unflinching as it is, it opens its arms to all boys, from those who believe themselves to be heterosexual to those who are homosexual. From the macho boys to the softer, more sensitive ones. This is Makhubu’s gift. Her uncanny ability to wear skin she’s never walked a day in and see things with so much clarity that it felt as though she were in a boy’s mind. A quality that bestowed the book its authentic texture.
Another critical element to Makhubu’s twist-filled storytelling, one worth appreciating, is the subtle calling out of unethical motherhood through Jabulani’s mother. True and consistent with the novel being the story of the boy and a man still evolving, it calls into question the realities we’ve woven into the fabric of society. When a father is absent, is it because he’s a good-for-nothing deadbeat or is there another darker reason the mother is privy to but isn’t ethical enough to disclose in public?
If a father, out of wounded pride, left his son to blunder through the streets of life because of a mother’s wrong-doing, who exactly is in the wrong? Is the father in the wrong for not compartmentalizing his emotions, which is the very thing that fosters toxic masculinity? Is the mother the one at fault, or should they break the blame in half? Such makes one wonder how many unjust mothers out there are telling half-truths about the fathers to their children to save face.
Among others, there are lots of double-edged questions Makhubu so cleverly wedges between the book. Conversations society should be having, especially in South Africa, where there’s a serious male-female divide stemming from all these uncleaned wounds turned septic. Through emotive narration, Makhubu poses these questions without coming off as being forceful, which would be off-putting or accusatory, which would only stoke more division instead of constructive discourse.
From a story’s perspective, Makhubu doesn’t use the characters as soulless puppets to point fingers. If anything, every issue is addressed with compassion, as it should be. Because by the end of everything, the story doesn’t lose sight of what it’s trying to say. It’s not about the mothers, the fathers, the society, or whatever. It’s not about any of those things. It’s about the boys. The boys. What about the boys?
From a technical perspective, there are several habits Makhubu might want to consider shedding moving forward. One such thing is the inclination to wander off with too much description and the tendency to pack her writing with too much extraneous detail, slowing down the pacing. There are also instances where the transitions between character perspectives are too sudden, creating this dizzying effect as to which character is narrating. That, perhaps, could’ve been helped had the story been broken up into sub-chapters to indicate a change. However, as a teen author, those are shortfalls that can be pardoned, with the amount of years ahead of her to polish her techniques and streamline her approach. Besides, the gems within the writing outweigh the shortcomings.
Some of these gifts between the covers are her cutting one-liners about the truths of life: “My father was not home, so I did not know how to love a woman as a husband”, and “Men weren’t shatterproof.”
Makhubu’s imagination is fertile with precocious philosophy and deductions about the sad realities of life, and it shows. The shining moments of the story, of which there are many, are the parts where she writes as a straight talker and a clear-sighted judge passing unbiased verdicts. That’s a minimalist pocket, I wish to see her exploit more in the future.
Where We Belong is a daring debut from a young voice that demonstrates a profound ability to leverage empathy, the capacity to be a fly in the wall, and storytelling to turn it into a story most boys and men would rather turn their faces away from. Makhubu doesn’t hold all the answers, but what she does have are all the right questions, and she’s asked them in a way that everybody’s forced to grit their teeth and start thinking about what next must be done to better the lives of boys.