Born a Crime

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Released: November 15, 2016
Pages: 304
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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.

I think it’s probably impossible to dislike Trevor Noah. Perhaps there are people who don’t like him, but I can’t see how anyone could actively dislike him. I’ve seen him on the Daily Show, seen clips of some of his standup, heard some of his more serious musings and interviews, and have always had an impression of him as a curious, principled, funny guy. I’ve never looked into his background, and, apart from knowing that he was born in South Africa, not really heard anything about it either.

As it turns out, Trevor Noah has a background that’s well worth hearing something about.

Born a Crime is written as a collection of stories from Trevor’s childhood which all revolve around different formative events in his life. These stories have overlapping timelines and characters, often skipping or glossing over things that are covered in other stories. Even though the stories are different, pretty much all of them center around one of the two things that have formed Trevor Noah into who he is today: apartheid and the culture surrounding it, and his mother.

Trevor, being a mixed child, experienced apartheid from a perspective that I had never thought about. Too black to be white, too white to be black, and with a mother and cultural background that disqualified him from the accepted definition of coloured. To paraphrase the way he puts it himself, he didn’t belong anywhere, but did his best to fit in everywhere. Not only did this book teach me new things about apartheid in general (shamefully, probably more an indictment of my prior knowledge rather than a comment on this book), but it also covers some aspects of apartheid, and the social legacy and culture that resulted from it, that Trevor, due to the uncommon combination of his colour and cultural legacy, was forced to confront. As eventful and dramatic as Trevor’s childhood was in its own right, it also took place in front of a backdrop that amplified everything.

But as strong and as interesting as the sections revolving around apartheid, and the effect it had on Trevor’s childhood, is, the sections about his mother are absolutely the best parts of this book. Their relationship throughout the book is filled with friction, arguments, and physical punishment, but Trevor’s respect and love for his mother shines through in a way that feels completely unforced, and profoundly genuine.

Contrary to what one might expect from an autobiography written by Trevor Noah, Born a Crime is not a funny book. Sure, there is plenty of humour in it owing to Trevor’s ability to find, and brilliantly convey, the funny and absurd aspects of the trivial, the dramatic, and even the tragic, but to primarily call this a funny book would be to undersell it. It’s not a collection of funny stories, but rather an incredibly interesting, genuinely moving, story of a life.

Born a Crime would probably sell well regardless of what it contained. It’s written by and about Trevor Noah. Tonnes of people would certainly be interested in reading about the childhood of Trevor Noah, regardless of how interesting it was. However, Born a Crime is about a fascinating childhood which just happens to be lived by a guy who is now on television, and who, fortunately, is also a great storyteller. Everyone will learn something from this book. Everyone will think about things they didn’t think about before, and think about things they did think about before in a new way.

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