Born a Crime and other stories
Pan Macmillan South Africa
Review: Simoné* de Bruin
With a possible Emmy nomination in the offing this month for his American late night show, The Daily Show, it seems everything South African funnyman Trevor Noah touches turns to gold.
None more so than his debut publication, Born a Crime and other stories, which made it to the New York bestseller list shortly after its release. It has also reached the top 10 book sales of Audible, an audiobook service owned by Amazon.
The book is a collection of personal essays, chronicling Trevor’s life growing up in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and the 1990s, the son of a black Xhosa woman and a white Swiss man – automatically making his birth and his very existence a crime because of the Immorality Act and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, which gave the government of the day the licence to track down racially mixed couples.
Mixed couples caught in flagrante were arrested and their underwear used as forensic evidence in court.
The essays are at times hilarious but it also gives you insight into the man behind the slick, skilled performer and host. It is an engaging and endearing read, illuminating his relationship with his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, a fearless, rebellious and fervently religious woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.
While confirmation of his mother’s faith and her undaunting spirit and examples of the pair’s close but fiery relationship can be found throughout the book, the last few pages of the book in the essay My Mother’s Life sum it up superbly for me where Trevor tells his mother after her near-fatal shooting at the hands of his step-father: “I still can’t believe you didn’t have medical aid.” “Oh but I do,” she tells Trevor. “You do?” he asks. “Yes. Jesus”, she says. “Jesus is your medical aid?” he asks “But where was your Jesus to pay your hospital bill, hmmm? I know for a fact that He didn’t pay that”, Trevor retorts, to which his mom smiles and says,” You’re right. He didn’t. But He blessed me with the son who did”.
Born a Crime might be Trevor’s first book but just like his stand-up comedy there’s nothing fumbling about his writing.
In fact, once you start, you don’t want to stop reading. He gives an unflinching account of what it was like growing up and often he is not painted in a favourable light.
There are many incidents in the book I found I could relate to – pop culture at the time, the buzz and vibe of life in the townships, family dynamics, religion and, of course ,the constant issue of identity in the political quagmire of pre- and post-apartheid South Africa.
Trevor is an astute political and social commentator and as much as Born a Crime is autobiographical, it is also a very perceptive scrutiny of South Africa and how the issues of race and apartheid damaged us and still coat our lives and actions today.