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

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus when it comes to posting on this blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. Rather, I’ve noticed an interesting shift in my reading habits in the past few weeks. I’ve had a lifelong love for fiction, particularly literary fiction, and I found myself gravitating more towards memoir and other nonfiction. It began with Born a Crime.

I’ve been a fan of the Daily Show for years, and while Trevor Noah is no Jon Stewart, I always enjoyed his commentary and unique perspective on America as a native South African. Trevor Noah is biracial, born in the waning years of apartheid, and was therefore ‘born a crime’. I knew nothing of apartheid except Nelson Mandela, and was excited to delve into the past and present of this smart, successful public figure. How racism played a role in who he was today.

I was not prepared for this.

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Audible free trials are great

Firstly, I highly recommend the audiobook for this, and for memoirs in general. I’m fairly new to audiobooks, but sometimes I find it nice just to listen while keeping my hands busy with a knitted scarf. A memoir on audiobook evokes the magical feeling of being told a bedtime story as a child. My father was a storyteller. And like Trevor Noah, he loved telling stories of his childhood and adolescence in a foreign land, drawing parallels to the comparatively cushy life I live today. Even in the darkest moments of the book, I felt a certain comfort in hearing Trevor’s voice, his emphases and pauses.

And of course, the accent. There’s no way I could’ve pronounced those native Zulu and Xhosa words correctly in my head. I needed Trevor, a polyglot, to guide me. Not to mention his voice is pretty easy on the ears.

If anything, he made me want to learn my own mother tongue, long forgotten in years of English immersion.

Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.

What Trevor brings to the table in Born a Crime is authenticity. It’s one of the very qualities of memoir I love the most. There’s always a certain amount of subjectivity, narrow focus, details missed, when you listen to someone tell a story from thirty years ago. But it’s their truth, and it’s magnificent. It makes you consider all the mundane details of your life, gather them together, and wonder if there’s a serviceable story if you glue all those pieces together. In Trevor’s case, there was. Growing up poor, ostracized from every predetermined group of people, making sense of fractured culture, Western educaton, and patriarchy. And Trevor doesn’t come out of this unscathed. At points he’s undeniably the bad guy. He treats his long-suffering mother rather poorly at points. He treats women as objects. He hustles dozens of people out of money instead of cobbling together an honest living. But he owns up, self-reflects, and moves forward. You don’t have to be perfect to write a book like this. Far from it.

I learned so much about apartheid too. I assumed it was simple segregation, not unlike the Jim Crow Era of the United States. Instead, it was written, systemic oppression with clear lines, palpable hatred, and purely malicious intent. It was designed based on the precedents of Nazi Germany and it shows. Apartheid isn’t taught properly in American schools. And if anything, it should be. It casts a very bright spotlight on ourselves, especially in the current political climate.

If there are any drawbacks to this book, it’s how Trevor attempts to shoehorn in references to American politics. They’re easily extrapolated, and sometimes feel out of place when Trevor mentions them. They sometimes feel like little nagging reminders of his job as host of a political comedy program. But this is small, barely an annoyance. It hardly detracts from the power of the narrative.

Born a Crime inspired me to read more memoirs. I finished Alana Okun’s The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater. I’m in the middle of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire. I might write reviews on some of them too.

Published by Malavika Praseed

Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms

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