Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah.
Spiegel & Grau, Imprint of Random House, 2016.
Autobiography, 285 pages.
Purposefully born to a Xhosa mother and a Swiss/German father in South Africa, the act of Trevor Noah’s very birth was a crime in apartheid South Africa, so he spent the first five years of his life inside except for the occasional carefully orchestrated outing. Visibly lighter skinned than his family, but not quite white either, Trevor holds a unique, insider/outsider perspective on the South Africa of his childhood.
I bought this book at Target thanks to my new policy. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t have chosen it on my own. I actually flipped through this book previously and then found a children’s book instead. It was presented like a comedy book, not something I would seek given my unusual taste in humor.
The back matter called it “personal essays”. I can understand why, although to me this has a clear biography structure. The first chapter, like so many other biographies, presents a detailed picture of a suspenseful time in Noah’s life before we return to his birth. The book actually opens with an excerpt from the law marking his very existence as criminal, so the savvy reader is already aware, but now we get the details of who his father is and how he came to be.
In between chapters there is a short section that drops some knowledge on the reader, explaining what apartheid is, language in South Africa (it’s weird not to be a little bit bilingual), how racism works there. I really needed that. All I can remember learning about Africa in school was filling out a map with places Europeans colonized. I’m sure we learned more than that, but it clearly wasn’t enough. Trevor Noah seems to be aware of American knowledge of Africa, or else had a very clever proofer, because he gives all the information needed for an American to understand his book without overwhelming the reader. Gradually, as we get further into the book, this informative section became more and more personal.
I think this is the first adult non-fiction book I’ve ever read about Africa, although I own some and have read some African fiction.
This is definitely a book for adults. There is a lot of swearing, and quite a bit of graphic violence as well. I actually would like to see a Young Readers edition of this, but I’m not sure how they would retain the plot or the voice without those elements. However, until that time, I can certainly recommend this to grown-ups.
The romance aspect is comparatively tame, which I didn’t expect based on the heavy swearing and frequent violence. Readers will also want to be aware that Noah is very disparaging of his mother’s strong Christian faith, however, [SPOILER] this longstanding mockery is turned on its head in the final chapter. /spoiler.
I think parts of this were intended to be very funny, but as I’ve mentioned above, my humor tends to be very different from others. While I didn’t find this laugh-out-loud funny, I did greatly appreciate the humorous approach because it made this book about some very difficult topics an approachable read.
Noah has a way of writing that leaves you always intrigued by some small comment he made and wanting to read more just to find out what happens. That method drove me to read and read until I finished, and the payout was beautifully conveyed.
Trevor Noah was mixed race in a country where that was literally an illegal state of being. He was continually navigating his race and sense of not belonging through various schools and dwellings and jobs. So he has a great deal of insight into race and expresses himself quite eloquently:
“I moved to the B classes with the black kids. I decided I’d rather be held back with people I liked than move ahead with people I didn’t like.” p. 59
The next-to-last section, all about his life as a “cheese boy” was probably the most difficult for me to read. I teared up a little reading the final two chapters.
There was a bit of a disconnect. Unlike, presumably, most buyers of the book, I had no idea who Trevor Noah was until I googled him while writing this review. Perhaps those who watch his comedy or are aware of him won’t be so perplexed, but I had a hard time understanding the connections. How did his comedy career develop? How did he get from selling burned CDs on the street to living in America? This book didn’t fill in those gaps.
In the end, this wasn’t really your typical autobiography. Yes, it tells the story of Trevor Noah’s life, but with pithy humor and social commentary. And the story at the heart of this book isn’t Noah’s life, but rather the relationship between an extraordinary mother and son and how they loved and cared for each other through the craziest times.
The language and content mean I can really only recommend this to adults, but I do think it’s worth a read.