Author: Trevor Noah
Genre: Non-fiction; memoir
Publisher: John Murray
I was recently at Text Book Centre doing one of my favourite things- browsing. And then I came across Trevor Noah’s highly-acclaimed memoir, Born a Crime- Stories from a South African Childhood. I flipped it open to a random page and was soon laughing. Just imagine Trevor as a naughty young boy trying to escape punishment for one of his many misdeeds by running away from his mother, who is chasing him full-speed in high heels, and then his mother removes the heels while still running. Even funnier,when he got to the age where he became faster than her (theirs was a Tom-and-Jerry relationship, discipline-wise,) she’d yell “Stop that thief!” so that people could help her catch her son, after which a proper spanking awaited him.
But it’s not all laughter and humorous anecdotes. The disruption of growing up under apartheid is something that comes across very clearly in this book. Apartheid was like a many-tentacled monster that touched and darkened every aspect of life, and even when it was abolished, it had already devastated the future for so many black South Africans. Anyone who reads this book will come to a point where they wonder how a system that was so profoundly evil flourished for as long as it did, and even more, how those who lived through it did so without losing their minds or their will to survive.
Reading Born a Crime is like being allowed back-stage to discover the real Trevor Noah, the man behind the polished persona onstage who breaks our ribs with his ability to impersonate anyone and make fun of anything. You can feel his frustrations and vulnerability as he describes the identity crisis of growing up as a mixed-race child in a predominantly black community. Everywhere he went, he says, he had to work out where he belonged, and soon discovered that one thing that gained him access to all sorts of groups was humour— that, along with becoming multi-lingual.
Michiko Katutani of the New York Times describes the book as “…not just an unnerving account of growing up in South Africa under apartheid, but a love letter to the author’s remarkable mother,” which it certainly is. In every page, the influence of Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, the author’s mother, is clearly felt. This memoir is a testament of how much good a parent’s determination to show their child a world beyond anything they themselves have experienced, to wish so much more for their child than they ever had, can do them. You need to read this book to understand just how much of an outlier Trevor’s mother was in her time— this bold, unmarried woman raising a mixed-race child in apartheid South Africa, where it was a punishable crime to have sex with a person of a different race.
One thing that surprised me was how much Soweto sounds like Kibera, how much life for a black person living in the homelands mirrored that of a Kenyan in the 1950’s living in the reserves during the emergency. I can see now that the experience of colonization- no matter who the colonizer- has many common elements.
I won’t spoil this read for you by sharing any more tidbits, just go ahead and get yourself your own copy- and please note that if you will be reading it in a matatu or train then yes, you’ll be that person giggling and laughing by yourself. Prepare for strange looks!
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