Humor · Memoir/Biography/Autobiography · Nonfiction

Born a Crime

I love Trevor Noah on The Daily Show – I think his social and political commentary is some of the best (hilarious, but one of the most cutting). I didn’t really know much about his past, but I have always appreciated the perspective he brought to the table and his occasional references to sayings or events from his country of origin (South Africa). Pretty much in the world of late night comedy hosts, hilarious though they all are, any minority POV is something different/special. But I never really thought about it (Noah’s history) beyond that. Well, this book gives so much information, much of which is hard (but necessary), to swallow. And it’s an absolutely fascinating and entertaining read.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

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There are two main threads in this memoir. Partly, this is a collection of Noah’s personal memories – events and moments that stuck out to him from childhood. Partly, this is a commentary on apartheid and racism, looking at it both specific to South Africa and commenting in a more general sense. The personal stories and real, touching, and (when appropriate) hilariously rendered. In a departure from the normal celebrity memoir topics, Noah does not talk at all about his rise as a comedian, how he actually got to where he is now, or his experiences as a mainstream and very popular figure. Instead, this book is exactly what the title claims “Stories from a South African Childhood” – which is refreshing. Noah shares scary stories (like jumping from a moving vehicle as a 9-year-old), hilarious stories (like shitting on the kitchen floor or the always amusing tales of dating blunders), personal and heartbreaking stories (like what his mother did with her life to give him opportunity or his stepfather’s abuse and the threat to his mother’s life as a culmination of that), insane stories (he burned down a house?! or their neighbor that tried to steal their dog), unbelievable stories (it was literally illegal for his parents to have him, since they were different races, and he could have been taken away from them at any time, if found out, because he was now a different race from both of them), and illustrative stories (like how he became a local pirated music “kingpin” and DJ). All of which are written with his characteristic style of straightforward, harsh truths with a softer-ish comedic edge. His life kept me on the edge of my seat and, more than once, made me yell “what?!” out loud. A number of his stories border on the ridiculous and for one person to have experienced it all…it’s clear why he (or an agent) wanted to share them in a memoir like this.

Regarding the commentary on racism, it’s handled flawlessly for a book like this. Between each of the chapters there is a little section with a comment on apartheid or other aspects of South African life that, concisely and clearly, demonstrate the insanities of apartheid (and racism in general) or illuminate key (sometimes funny) cultural differences. These were short and pointed, making you think and question, but not to the point where the enjoyability of the rest of the book is overshadowed. Essentially, these are the written versions of his late-night monologues, all focused on one topic. So good. Also, periodically throughout the book, there would be times in the middle of a story that Noah would stop and make a quick observation/explanation on how absurd some of the social constructs, that made the experiences what they were, actually are. These were on anything from the universal way middle/high school friends communicate and set each other up with “dates” to the way the South African government took advantage of black South Africans’ cultural differences in order to manipulate them into, essentially, keeping themselves down.

There are also many other types of lessons, those that Noah pulls together himself and those that have come from his mother. He talks about the things like the oversight in the common adage “give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for life” – sure then he’ll know how to fish, but if no one is willing to give him a rod, what good does that do? He talks about the necessity of perspective when speaking of human rights atrocities – the prevailing Western point of view that that the worst offender is obviously Hitler versus the completely overlooked horrific experiences of people across the African continent throughout history. He talks about his mother’s lessons that in order to be whatever you dream to be, you need to have enough experiences that you are not limited by the fact that you don’t know how to dream any bigger. He talks about, as a colored (mixed) kid who didn’t ever fully fit anywhere, sometimes it’s easier to be an insider as an outsider than an outsider as an insider (your own “people” are harder on you, if you don’t conform, than those you might consider “other” to yourself).

Although apartheid has officially ended, every reader should be able to see the parallels between the remaining prejudices and inequalities, born of years of law-enforced racism, in South Africa and in the United States. This parallel, the enduring need for so much effort in both places before the effects can truly be overcome, might be (as an American reader) the most important take-away. Between the humorous childhood misadventures and the poignant mother to son lessons and bond, there is a distinct, if subtle, call to action. The drama in this book is what makes it hard to put down, but the historical and moral education (I learned a lot) is what will hit home. You won’t be able to come away from reading this without taking both with you. Sometimes laugh out loud funny and sometimes so brutally serious that it’s hard to listen to, this memoir has a little bit of everything and I definitely recommend it.

**I listened to the audiobook version and, after looking at the print version, I highly recommend the audio. Noah’s accents and pronunciations are (obviously) perfect. And I know I would have come nowhere close to them if I had been guessing at it in my head while reading. It’s a much more immersive and authentic feel and, more so than any audiobook I’ve listened to in the past, I think that makes a significant different here. The only thing is that the book is so good – so funny and so dramatic – that there were times that I did not want to stop listening and get out of the car when I reached my destination…

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