Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Trevor.pngAbout the Book

Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother: his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

The eighteen personal essays collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.

Review

I saw Born a Crime by Trevor Noah on NetGalley and decided to request it although I really didn’t think that I would get approved. Two weeks later, I had the book. If you have been following this blog then you may have seen a number of posts that I have written about the book. I couldn’t stop talking about it even before I started reading it. I have featured it on my Diversity Thursday Spotlight post, Ten Books to read if your book club likes African Literature ,WWW Posts, monthly-wrap and Friday Finds. Yes, that is how excited I was about this memoir.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah is a collection of essays. In each essay, Trevor narrates stories about his life and focuses on a particular memory or event against a backdrop of South Africa’s history. The main theme of this book is apartheid and life as a biracial child during this dark period. As Trevor explains, interracial relationships were punishable by law although the whites were freed with a warning while the blacks got imprisoned. He talks about spending his childhood  behind closed doors because his family was afraid that the government would take him away and arrest his mother. He also talks of how apartheid separated him from his father. These narrations are emotional and I found myself angered by the injustices that the black people in South Africa went through for so many years. Racism is illogical and ugly and I never knew  just how bad it was in SA before reading this book. It is crazy to think that I was born in the same year as Trevor, grew up in Africa like he did but under totally different circumstances. Growing up, I didn’t know much about apartheid apart from little bits of information through history lessons and movies like Sarafina. I was 10 years old when apartheid ended.

Trevor narrates his story the same way that he presents his standup comedies; mixing reality with humor. I found myself laughing through the chapters and sometimes wondering if I really should be laughing. I mean they are serious issues but Trevor just has his own way of narrating things so that they are serious and funny at the same time.

“But the more we went to church and the longer I sat in those pews the more I learned about how Christianity works: If you’re a Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a savage. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water to wine, well, that’s just common sense.”

The story takes us through his experiences during apartheid. He also shares his experience with domestic violence. At the same time, this is a story of a man determined to get through a tough life and succeed in a world in which he was never supposed to exist. The stories about his childhood escapades were hilarious. As a self-confessed naughty kid with a funny mom, he had so many hilarious adventures.  I also like how Trevor mixed historical background and personal stories to create better understanding of events which is great especially for those living outside South Africa.

“People always lecture the poor: “Take responsibility for yourself! Make something of yourself!” But with what raw materials are the poor to make something of themselves? People”

The final chapter in Born a Crime by Trevor Noah was  tough to read. I have heard him speak about his mother getting shot before. If you have watched his standup comedies in SA, then you may have seen that bit about his brother calling him to tell him that their mum had been shot. However, I never knew the circumstances that led to that call. It was heartbreaking to see what his mother went through. It is even worse to think that the same thing still happens especially here. Women get battered while everyone looks away. Sometimes from the outside, it feels hopeless because what can you really do? You can’t stop the fights and you can’t also call the cops because they will do nothing about it. It was a sad reality. That is the thing about this memoir; his story is my story and everyone else’s story. It may not be exactly the same but it is something that everyone knows about and may have experienced at some point in life.

born-a-crime-2Born a Crime by Trevor Noah is a book that I highly recommend to everyone. I am not just saying this because I like the guy and think that he is brilliant and funny (just mentioning it in case it is not yet obvious). However, this is a book about family, a mother-son relationship, friendship, racism and a person’s ability to overcome all hurdles in life. It is also a coming of age story. I am so proud of Trevor for all that he has achieved in life. He is an inspiration to all the people who have ever faced any adversity and felt like they don’t belong.  I think this is an inspiring story for our continent too. I mean watching Trevor touring the world and now hosting the Daily show, overcoming so much to get there….wow!  This is an inspiring memoir that will make you laugh and cry through the chapters (sometimes at the same time). If you are looking for a diverse read then you should definitely pick this one. If you want to understand more about South Africa and Apartheid (from an insider’s view point), this is the book for you. Seriously though, just get the memoir. It is a wonderful!

“Language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.”
Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

I received this book from NetGalley and Spiegel & Grau in exchange for an honest review. I am really grateful to the publishers for giving me the chance to read an ARC of this book. Thank you Trevor Noah for sharing your story with the world!

 About Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah is the one of the most successful comedian in Africa. He is the host of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning program The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Noah joined The Daily Show in 2014 as a contributor.Born in South Africa to a black South African mother and a white European father, Noah has hosted numerous television shows including South Africa’s music, television and film awards, the South African Comedy Festival and two seasons of his own late night talk show, Tonight with Trevor Noah. He made his U.S. television debut in 2012 on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and has also appeared on Late Show with David Letterman, becoming the first South African stand-up comedian to appear on either late night show.

He continues to tour all over the world and has performed in front of sold out crowds at the Hammersmith Apollo in London and the Sydney Opera House in Australia as well as many US cities.

A brief extract on racism and apartheid from  the book:

Apartheid, for all its power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But, unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ’em black. It’s simpler that way.”
Interestingly, at the same time, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. I always like to imagine being a South African policeman who likely couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese but whose job was to make sure that people of the wrong color weren’t doing the wrong thing. If he saw an Asian person sitting on a whites-only bench, what would he say?
“Hey, get off that bench, you Chinaman!”
“Excuse me. I’m Japanese.”
“Oh, I apologize, sir. I didn’t mean to be racist. Have a lovely afternoon.”