When it comes to book recommendations, never underestimate the value of word of mouth. Had it not been for a friend’s recommendation, I might never have read great books like Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Dark Money or The Lost Gutenberg. Not long ago a good friend of mine (and one of the smartest people I know) told me she was reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood and had good things to say about it. While I was at the public library grabbing memoirs a few weeks ago I helped myself to a well-worn copy. Keep in mind I was doing all this based on my friend’s recommendation. I avoid celebrity memoirs like the plague. On top of that, haven’t watched The Daily Show in years, and not since Noah took over as host. After ignoring Noah’s book for about a week I gave it a try. My good friend did not steer me wrong. Thanks to Born a Crime I probably learned more about South Africa’s transition from white-minority rule to post-Apartheid democracy than anything I’ve read up to this point. And while doing so, thanks to Noah’s intelligent and irreverent wit, I laughed repeatedly.
Under South Africa’s old regime interracial liaisons were illegal, but human beings being what we are, nevertheless such couplings still happened. (Noah, reflecting on the absurdity of such a prohibition figured if the police ever caught an interracial couple in flagrante delicto the apprehending officer would just counsel the white male, “just go home, you’re drunk.”) With his mother a black Xhosa and his father a white Swiss expat, the biracial Noah was, and still is classified under South African law as coloured. Being biracial could be thought of as inhabiting two worlds at once. Perhaps this almost quantum state combined with his talent for mastering multiple languages (he speaks eight, including English, Xhosa and Afrikaans), wit and good natured charm allowed him to communicate with and relate well to most, if not all the South Africans he encountered throughout his young life regardless of their race or class. Alas, however as many a parent can tell you when a young man is blessed with wit, charm and ambition it’s tempting to be mischievous. It was these stories, the ones in which young Trevor not as much broke the rules, but, well, bended were my favorites.
The world knows Trevor Noah as a television star and a global celebrity. I’m amazed after reading his memoir the obstacles he overcame to get where he is today. If growing up coloured in South Africa wasn’t enough he had to endure crushing poverty, (at one point reduced to eating caterpillars) a murderously abusive stepfather, a religiously zealous hard-ass mother (Sundays she would drag Noah to not one, but three different churches), violent crime (the book begins with young Trevor and his mom having to bail out of a moving passenger van because they were in the process of being kidnapped) and oppressive South African police.
I enjoyed Born a Crime. It taught me a lot of South Africa and made me laugh. Can’t go wrong with that.