In “Born a Crime,” Trevor Noah writes of how his very birth — to a black mother and white father under apartheid law in South Africa — was illegal.
‘Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood’
by Trevor Noah
Spiegel & Grau, 285 pp., $28
It’s no surprise that Trevor Noah, the slyly suave successor to Jon Stewart as host of “The Daily Show,” should write a smart book. But “smart” doesn’t begin to cover what he pulls off in “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood ” (in bookstores Nov. 15).
Noah’s memoir is extraordinary in its observations of South Africa in the years when apartheid crumbled. It’s equally unusual in the troubling personal story it tells. Throw in Noah’s sharp, droll prose style, and you have a book that feels like essential reading on every level.
Noah was born in Johannesburg in 1984 to a black mother and a white Swiss father whose sexual relationship, which didn’t last long, was illegal under apartheid. Noah’s mere existence likewise put him on the wrong side of the law. Being of mixed race made him “colored” rather than black or white, and under South Africa’s strict segregation scheme, a colored child was supposed to live only with colored parents.
“[Place] the wrong color kid in the wrong color area,” he explains, “and the government could come in, strip your parents of custody, haul you off to an orphanage.”
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For the first six years of his life, Noah was prohibited from playing with his black cousins in the streets of Soweto for fear that the police would nab him. With the end of apartheid, that worry vanished — but Noah’s odd status made him an outsider, no matter where he and his mother lived. And being an outsider made him a keen observer of the roiling, fragmented world around him.
He and his mother shared a knack for languages that helped them breach the social and racial barriers they faced. “I became a chameleon,” he writes. “My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.”
His mother — a fiercely religious, rule-breaking woman estranged from her own family — wanted her son “to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.” The wrangles between them, with Mom putting her trust in her Christian faith (“I’ve got all of Heaven’s angels behind me”) and young Trevor challenging her (“Well, it would be nice if we could see them”), are hilarious — even in violent situations.
The direst threat they faced came from the man she married when Noah was 9: a gifted garage mechanic with no head for business and a serious drinking problem. He threatened their lives with his physical abuse. Noah’s eccentric turn of mind helps bring relief to the harsher elements of his tale. (“A dog is a great thing for a kid to have,” he quips about a beloved pet. “It’s like a bicycle but with emotions.”)
In his late teens, he went through a delinquent phase, fencing stolen goods and spending a week in jail for “borrowing” a car. Brief references to his stand-up and TV career in South Africa hint at how he righted his path in life. But he doesn’t say a word about his U.S. success or “The Daily Show.”
Instead, his focus is on making you see South African realities before and after apartheid from a curious, questioning youngster’s point of view. It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing a finer job of it.