Born a Crime

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Read 22/03/2017-24/03/2017

Rating: 4 stars

Read for The Reader’s Room March Madness Challenge

When this book came up as one of the Reader’s Room March Madness Challenge reads, the description interested me. I didn’t know who Trevor Noah was. I learned that he’s the current host of The Daily Show, but I was more interested in the description of his birth being a crime.

Noah was born in South Africa when the Apartheid system was still in place. Mixing of races was illegal. If a black person and a white person were found to be having a sexual relationship, the punishment for both was imprisonment. Noah tells the story of his remarkable Xhosa mum and her determination to have a child. His mum is unconventional. She does things her way. She trained to be a secretary at a time when black women weren’t supposed to have white collar jobs. She left Soweto to live in a Johannesburg suburb, where anyone black was supposed to return to the townships before curfew or risk being fined. She met a Swiss man with whom she started a relationship. She decided he would be the one to give her a child. And so Trevor Noah came into being. With all the risks that involved.

The book combines overviews of the history and practice of Apartheid with a love story about Noah’s mum. He’s matter of fact about the injustice and violence encountered on a daily basis in South Africa in the run up to Mandela’s release and in the early years of democracy. He explains what Apartheid was designed to do, the division it fostered between blacks from different ethnic backgrounds, pitching Zulu against Xhosa against Tswana against Sotho against a long list of African peoples. There is humour to leaven the seriousness, but the underlying horror never fully disappears.

Against this backdrop of segregation and fear, Noah is given every opportunity to thrive by his mum. He’s an intelligent, energetic child, encouraged to think about everything. In the years when Apartheid was still the law, Noah had to be largely hidden away, so he learned early on how to occupy his mind in solitude. As Apartheid begins to wind down in the years leading to Mandela’s release, Noah gains more freedom and mixes with other children more. This reveals to him who he is, who he identifies with, who he wants to be around. Despite the advantages his light skin could potentially bring him educationally, Noah recognises that he is black and chooses his mum’s culture and a sense of belonging over education and continued separation.

As someone who remembers the horrors of Apartheid being beamed into my home on the nightly news in the 70s and 80s but being too young to really understand it at the time, I was grateful for Noah’s clear and sanguine descriptions of the system that revealed the truth of its horror without bludgeoning. I was also grateful for the way in which he showed that, despite the situation he was born into, it was possible to have a reasonably carefree childhood. He comes across as a positive and focused man who has inherited his mum’s determined nature.

I really loved Noah’s exploration of his relationship with his mum, his memories of her and of their lives together. This quote sums it up well:

My relationship with my mom was like the relationship between a cop and a criminal in the movies – the relentless detective and the devious mastermind she’s determined to catch. They’re bitter rivals, but, damn, they respect the hell out of each other, and somehow they even grow to like each other. Sometimes my mom would catch me, but she was usually one step behind, and she was always giving me the eye. Someday, kid. Someday I’m going to catch you and put you away for the rest of your life. Then I would give her a nod in return. Have a good evening, Officer. That was my whole childhood.

I suppose, when you raise your son to think for himself, you’re going to have your work cut out for you reining him in. I laughed often at the ways she tried to outwit him, the cunning lessons she tried to give him.

Things become slightly less carefree for Noah when he hits his teenage years. He has all of the usual trials, acne, gangly limbs, not being cool, plus the extras of his violent step-father and his skin colour. He doesn’t fit in anywhere. He’s bullied. He learns to navigate life as a nobody, fitting around other people, never quite belonging. He makes a few friends, becomes skilled in mixing and dj-ing, gets involved in pirating music and running dance nights. Some of his adventures are funny because of his devil may care attitude. Some are funny in spite of the terror at the heart of them. He finds a way to bring brightness to the worst stories. The story about the day his mum was shot made my heart drop like a stone, though. That’s a sign of good writing. He made me care about a woman I’ve never met, as though she were a friend.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart used to be shown on More4 in the UK. I wish that The Daily Show with Trevor Noah was. I’d like to see his version.

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