Book: Born A Crime
Author: Trevor Noah
Narrator: Trevor Noah
BECHDEL TEST: N/A (since this is a memoir)
Content Warnings: Racism, discussions of Apartheid, shooting, domestic abuse, racial slurs, violence, animal cruelty, classism, poverty, alcoholism, physical abuse, child abuse, misogyny, police brutality, mentions of slavery and colonialism, anti-semitism, animal death, pregnancy, medical and hospital content, bullying, blood, sexual assault
I have to admit, before reading this, I was only vaguely aware of Trevor Noah, in that I knew his name and knew that he hosted The Daily Show in the US, but I’d never heard any of his comedy. But I kept seeing his memoir pop up in people’s Top Ten Tuesday lists for months and months, and everyone was raving about how good it was, and since spending almost three months in Cape Town at the beginning of 2020, I was quite interested in reading a memoir of someone who is from there and grew up in such a turbulent time in South Africa’s history. I’m glad I listened to all the raves, because this book was fantastic, definitely one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
The memoir of one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.
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 narration was definitely the star of this book, I always recommend listening to memoirs rather than reading them in physical format because they are so often narrated by their authors and how better to consume a story about someone’s life than listening to the person concerned tell it? But for this memoir, that applies even more because Trevor Noah is just such a fantastic storyteller, lively and engaging, and so skilled at different languages and dialects that it’s worth getting the audio just to hear him slip easily in and out of multiple languages, as well as hear his incredibly on-point imitations of his family and friends (all in perfect accents, of course). I have to admit, hearing him talk about all the different languages he speaks made me quite jealous, as try as I might, I’m still only fluent in English (my aim is to one day be at least conversationally fluent in Spanish as well, but that seems a long way off!).
As you’d expect given that Noah is a comedian, this book is incredibly funny. It covers quite serious issues but Noah talks about his life with such charm and humour, that it never feels depressing, and the balance of more serious stories and more light hearted ones is done well. It definitely made me want to check out more of Noah’s comedy.
I’m glad that I found out about this after having been to South Africa, because I think I had more of an appreciation for Noah’s stories having actually been to the country (though I was in Cape Town, not Johannesburg, but when he talked about things like the townships, I had a picture in my head of what he meant). I also really learned a lot about the history of South Africa and what it was like under Apartheid, which really should be taught more in school! I only really covered Apartheid when I was studying History at uni, and that was really only in one module about great historical figures where we covered Nelson Mandela. It’s not right that it’s not taught more widely in the UK given that we colonised South Africa in the 19th century. At one point in the book Noah compares the lack of teaching about Apartheid in South Africa with the focus on teaching of the Holocaust in Germany, and the teaching of the British Empire in the UK. Whilst I’d agree with the comparison of the former, I don’t think I’d agree that UK schools do a good job of teaching about the horrors that the British Empire inflicted on the countries it colonised. I remember covering the Empire in school, but the focus was definitely more on what the Empire brought to the countries it colonised rather than the atrocities that were committed to the people of those countries. There are still a lot of people in the UK who are either uninformed about the British Empire or think that it was a good thing (no it wasn’t. This is probably a bit of a tangent considering that it was a tiny passage in the book, but I had a lot of feelings about it clearly!).
This is more a collection of stories than a cohesive narrative (which to be fair, if I’d paid more attention to the subtitle, Stories From A South African Childhood, I would have known), so it jumps around non-chronologically. This took a little getting used to, as I sometimes got lost as to exactly how old Trevor was in each story (and was initially surprised when one story was further in the past than a previous one was, or that we’d suddenly jumped ahead a lot), but once I got used to it, I really enjoyed the non-chronological structure, it made a change from the memoirs I usually read. It was cool that each chapter was quite self-contained, like its own little essay. Having said that, I did wonder what happened to some of the people in Trevor’s life after their story was over, like his friends Teddy and Zaheera who both play quite major roles in a couple of the essays, and because the stories are all self-contained and the book really only covers his childhood and young adulthood, we don’t get to see how things turn out for anyone.
Some of the chapters were a little overly long, and the transitions between the chapters were a little clunky, there was always a little bit of historical information about South Africa at the end of each chapter, and whilst that was interesting, it didn’t make for the most smooth transition between chapters. However I was surprised by how insightful the book was, Noah really does have some quite profound thoughts about equality and racism and other important issues, and I wasn’t expecting the writing to be so good, as it’s not always the case that celebrity memoirs are well written!
Trevor Noah’s mother Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah is definitely the star of this book though. She sounds like such an amazing woman and it’s so clear how much he loves and respects her. I would so love to meet her because she sounds like such a badass! The way she casually broke every barrier put in front of her and worked the broken system so she could get every advantage for her and her son was really inspiring and she just sounds like such a brave, funny, incredible woman.
Some of the chapters were a little long, especially the final one about his mother’s life, I mean I loved hearing about her of course, but it felt like that should have been two chapters rather than one hour and half long one. I also felt like that final chapter ended a little abruptly, I’d have liked it to come to a more natural conclusion.
I appreciate that Noah wasn’t afraid to explore his own flaws, he doesn’t always come off the best in his own stories (particularly the one where he didn’t realise that his prom date didn’t speak English whilst trying to get her to come into the dance after being late to pick her up and getting lost on the drive over and then being surprised when she wouldn’t come into the prom because she didn’t understand him). I appreciated that warts and all approach to his memoir.
One particular story I wanted to highlight was the story about a friend from Noah’s teenage years Hitler (yes you did read that right. I also did a double take when I saw the chapter entitled Go Hitler!). I had no idea that Hitler wasn’t an unusual name in South Africa, and like I’m sure a lot of readers were, I was quite taken aback when Noah started to talk about his friend Hitler. But his explanation that Hitler was not a name that was offensive to Black South Africans because he was not the worst thing they could imagine struck a chord. If you only knew that Hitler was a powerful leader, and didn’t know the context of the Holocaust, then of course you’re not going to find the name offensive. That chapter, whilst incredibly hilarious (all I’ll say is that there’s a dance troupe, a kid named Hitler and a performance at a Jewish school and leave you to either listen to or work out the rest), also touched on a really important point, which is that we in Western countries have a tendency to think that the important moments in our own history are incredibly important to people from other parts of the world as well, which is very arrogant, and obviously untrue.
Overall, I really enjoyed it this book, it was a thoroughly entertaining and non-traditional memoir, and it was great to end 2021 on what turned out to be my favourite read of 2021. Even if you’re only passingly familiar with Trevor Noah, I highly recommend this book, as it’s very funny and has a lot of interesting things to say about South Africa and its history, particularly Noah’s experience of growing up as mixed race child under Apartheid and in the post-Apartheid era.
My Rating: 5/5
So that’s my last book of 2021 reviewed! I’ll be onto reviewing my first read of 2022 next, which will be This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron. I’ve already finished it, so hopefully my review will be up sometime next week.