Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

born-a-crimeTrevor 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 stories collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. 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, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.

In 1976, thousands of high school students from Soweto, the black township located outside of Johannesburg, began protesting against the introduction of Afrikaans as 50% of the main language of instruction in their schools. The police response during these protests was to open fire with tear gas and bullets, and the resulting conflict meant that the world could no longer ignore the racial segregation and economic nightmare that was apartheid. At that time, my father was a high school teacher and my brothers were the same age as those students. I was only six, but I vividly remember the sobering and emotional conversations that ensued as we watched the reports on the news and discussed the events at the dinner table. It was my first introduction to what was happening in South Africa, and it was the first social justice issue in my memory actively and passionately championed by my father.

All of that came back to me as I listened to Trevor Noah read his collection of stories and essays, Born a Crime, via audiobook. I can say that this is easily the most disconcerting, riveting, witty and sobering book I’ve listened to all year. Having Noah himself read his experiences as well as provide his take on life under apartheid adds an extra layer to an already absorbing personal, social and political history.

Noah, perhaps most famous in North America for being the new host on The Daily Show, gives brief overviews of different aspects of apartheid, including the effects of the Population Registration Act that segregated citizens by race, the development of tribal homelands, or bantustans, and the everyday rules, laws and limitations that become the norm for non-white South Africans. As he himself states, his own birth was considered a crime as his mother was black and his father – never legally acknowledged due to the laws in place – was white. Noah’s tone may be matter-of-fact about his reality, but the heartache of a little boy who could not be allowed outside while holding his mother’s hand or call for his father on the playground is undeniable. His experiences as a rudder-less teen, making money via pirated tapes and CDs and later by DJ gigs in some of the roughest parts of the city, demonstrate the restlessness felt by thousands who were looking for a fair chance to succeed.

Noah’s affection and respect for his mother is evident in his voice and in his text. Determined to be successful despite the racial restrictions placed upon her, she managed to obtain an education and a decent job, all while balancing the challenges of being a single mother. Her extensive knowledge of language – she spoke Xhosa, Zulu, German, and Afrikaans as well as others – was passed on to her son, who used this gift to blend in with the different groups at school and in their community. Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah is a force of nature in many ways; determined to provide her son with everything necessary to escape the ‘black tax’, she saw their relationship as not just mother and son, but as partners in the adventure that was their life together. Whether they were jumping from a careening minibus and narrowly escaping with their lives, attending three different church services or fearlessly braving rioters on the street in order to reach her destination, her strength and resilience to move forward comes through loud and clear. Her religious beliefs may not have been as extensively shared by her son, but it’s clear that this faith kept his mother going in some of the darkest times of her life.

While Noah’s story is one of life in South Africa, I couldn’t help but hear the parallels in North American history as well as recognizing some of the disturbing trends currently rising in both Canadian and US political groups. As Noah recounted the experience of never really trusting your neighbours because you didn’t really know who might be an informant for the government, I couldn’t help but think of the parallel of one of our Conservative leadership candidates and her infamous “barbaric practices” tipline. Some of the social injustices observed by Noah, especially relating to his mother’s domestic violence situation, could be happening in rural communities in North America right now, not just ten or fifteen years ago in the townships. It’s unsettling to realize that we as a society really have’t come as far as we would like to believe.

Though the book is filled with suspense-filled moments and stories that will make you angry, there are also many moments where the author’s sense of humour allows you to see how he traversed the complicated routes of his childhood. Given a sense of purpose and strong work ethic by his mother, he was also able to find the fun in his life, and to enjoy himself. He was a mischievous child, and one blessed by luck in many situations as he managed to escape unscathed from pranks that might have gone horribly awry.

This book is an honest account of his upbringing, and it’s a clear declaration of love to his mother for all her efforts and her strength. It’s also, surprisingly, a love letter to his South Africa – of the people and the traditions and terrible politics therein. Descriptions of local delicacies are recounted with obvious longing, and while his past may have been checkered, it’s clear that these experiences have shaped Noah’s own personality. This holiday season, give it to everyone you know, either in print or in audio, and let them discover this gem of a read. I cannot recommend it enough.

Born a Crime is published by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House Canada. I purchased a copy via Audible and my opinions are my own. It is available for purchase now from your favourite independent, online or chain bookstore. ISBN: 9780385689229, 224 pages.