Author: Trevor Noah
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
First Publication: 2016
Setting: South Africa, primarily Johannesburg in the 1980s-1990s
Theme: Racism, Apartheid, and the Cycle of Poverty; Identity, Belonging, and Community; Love and Personal Growth; Resilience Through Religion, Education, and Humor
Narration: First person
Book Summary: Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
One of the comedy world’s brightest new voices, Trevor Noah is a light-footed but sharp-minded observer of the absurdities of politics, race and identity, sharing jokes and insights drawn from the wealth of experience acquired in his relatively young life. As host of the US hit show The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, he provides viewers around the globe with their nightly dose of biting satire, but here Noah turns his focus inward, giving readers a deeply personal, heartfelt and humorous look at the world that shaped him.
Noah was born a crime, son of 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 first 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, take him away.
“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.”
A collection of eighteen personal stories, Born a Crime tells the story of a mischievous young boy growing into a restless young man as he struggles to find his place in a world where he was never supposed to exist. Born a Crime is equally the story of that young man’s fearless, rebellious and fervently religious mother – a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence and abuse that ultimately threatens her own life.
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, Noah illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and an unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a personal portrait of an unlikely childhood in a dangerous time, as moving and unforgettable as the very best memoirs and as funny as Noah’s own hilarious stand-up. Born a Crime is a must read.
Book Review: Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah is remarkably wonderful memoir I’ve read. Not just because of the content–which is at times heartbreaking and mindblowing–but also because of the humor and warmth with which Trevor Noah’s managed to convey some very difficult life experiences.
Born in South Africa in the mid ’80s, Trevor Noah’s very existence as a biracial child was illegal. Even though apartheid fell while he was still a child, he faced unique challenges due to his ill-defined racial identity. He stood out as light-skinned in the poverty stricken black neighborhoods, but that didn’t mean that he was spared the poverty or the prejudice faced by anyone who wasn’t white.
“Language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.”
Noah introduces each of his stories with a little bit of background information on the political climate and culture of South Africa. Then he describes different phases of his life through that lens, looking at how his childhood friendships, early attempts at romance, and a sometimes turbulent family life: His mother remained single by choice until Noah was around 10, then she married a man with a violent temper and he lost touch with his birth father.
It’s not all bleak, though. Some of the stories are just about the hi-jinks that a teenaged Noah got into with his friends. It should not surprise you to know that he was a bit of a troublemaker and a hustler in his youth.
“Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.”
But even when he’s describing some unimaginable difficulties, Noah managed to make us laugh SO MUCH. His solution to his fear of using an outhouse shared by several other families in his grandmother’s neighborhood? Ridiculous.
The time that he didn’t realize that his date to the school dance didn’t speak the same language as him? Hilarious. His response to his mother throwing him out of a moving vehicle because she was afraid that the driver of the minibus was going to kill them? Shouldn’t be funny, but it was.
“Comfort can be dangerous. Comfort provides a floor but also a ceiling.”
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah is the kind of book that knocked our worldview around a little bit. Life under apartheid was hard, but Noah showed us just how hard, in a very visceral and personal way. He also showed how the shadow of apartheid lingered long after Nelson Mandela walked free, something that’s easy to forget. But what he really does so well here is demonstrate the power of human resilience. He gives so much credit to his mother, which seems to phenomenally deserved. But as amazing a portrait as he paints of her, I’m left with a newfound respect for Trevor’s own ability to overcome and succeed against the odds.