Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Published by Random House on November 15, 2016
Genres: Autobiography, Biography, Memoir, Non-Fiction
Length: 304 pages Source: Indie Bookstore
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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.
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 was not the memoir I expected. At this point, I’ve read a few different memoirs, of comedians, actresses, singers, and so forth. Most of them follow the same basic theme – the first few chapters cover childhood, but most the book is about their rise to fame and the thing they are most known for. Born a Crime doesn’t do that at all. Trevor Noah’s memoir bypasses his ascent, and focuses on his roots.
This alone endears me to the books – so many memoirs (even the good ones) spend a lot of time talking about themselves, but Trevor nods to his past and how his experiences made him who he is. Note the wording there – not “helped his succeed” but “made him who he is”. That’s important. But this isn’t your typical “I grew up in Connecticut with two dogs and happily married parents” story. It’s not even “rags to riches”, because Trevor didn’t have a fairy godmother. Born a Crime discusses the type of past that most people don’t want to talk about. His past is so very much not what I was expecting, and because of that I think this book is not only interesting, but important.
Without ruining the book – because this is a book that everyone should read – Trevor Noah was born in South Africa shortly before the end of apartheid. In America, apartheid is something we don’t like to talk about. From my own experience, this isn’t something we learned about in history class. While this novel is by no means a definitive guide of the crimes of apartheid, it certainly brings awareness. Trevor’s mother is Xhosa and his father was Swiss, so growing up, he struggled to find a place to fit in, being neither black enough or white enough for his peers. And again, this is all just skimming the surface.
Born a Crime discusses apartheid, racism, domestic violence, religion, poverty, crime, injustice, corruption. This could be a movie, and it would win an Oscar. Even with that list, I know I’m missing hot topics that were daily life in young Trevor’s world. On a very surface level, it’s incredible to think that the smooth, confident host of the Daily Show experienced these things and started his life this way. Mostly, it makes me mad. It makes me mad because the world sucks. My life has been so privileged, and I haven’t done a fraction of what Trevor has done. In a weird, abstract way, it makes me proud of him. And he does NOT need that from me, but holy crap, what an inspirational guy.
Also? Travor Noah clearly loves his mother. I found that lovely and touching. He fully admits that he was a nightmare child, but he is constantly giving his mom credit. This book is just as much about his mother as it is about him. And even in the bad, the words glow with love, respect, and appreciation.
I was totally moved by this book. I thought it was amazing and I have so much respect for Trevor, because he used this platform NOT to talk about how awesome he is, but to draw attention to the fundamental problems with our world. AND he did it in such a non-offensive way. They’re stories from his childhood, but they’ll make you squirm and they’ll make you think. Fantastic.
Born a Crime stays on the shelf
Of all the memoirs I’ve ever read, this is one that I would definitely read again. In fact, I would probably enjoy listening to the audiobook as well. It’s just such a fundamentally good book in so may ways that I would read it again, I want a copy on my shelf, and I would buy copies for other people. It’s so, so good. Not feel-good, but good.
Do you enjoy memoirs? This one is my favorite so far, but I really liked Amy Schumer’s and Gloria Steinham’s as well. Tell me in the comments which other memoirs I should read!