When I asked a readers group on Facebook for recommendations for books about South Africa (since I have a trip coming up shortly :), I wasn’t surprised to see that Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born A Crime, was at the top of the list. Although this book had been on my Kindle for a long time, I picked up a print copy from the library. I wanted to enjoy the full reading experience and to my delight, I found myself laughing out loud every so often at this heartwarming story.
What is the book about?
As the tagline states – the book features stories of a South African childhood. It starts and ends with a scary situation that is narrated in a simple, yet satirical tone with Noah’s signature touch of humour. The book is as much about Noah’s tough life as a mixed race child in post-apartheid South Africa as it is about his mother, a strong woman who is a force of nature, determined to raise him right. Along the way we are introduced to South Africa’s history, their tribes, their languages, their struggles but also treated to mini lessons about race, religion, poverty, bigotry and love.
With his typical easygoing narrative style, Noah shares much of his childhood, growing up as a light-skinned kid born to an African mother and a Swiss national in South Africa just before the end of apartheid. Yet his strong-willed mother’s decision to raise him single-handedly at a time when it was a crime for an African woman to have a child with a white man (therefore the title), makes for a riveting read.
Why should everyone read this book?
From the first page onwards, Noah tells you about the way things are in South Africa without mincing words. He talks about religion, about race, about life in a ghetto, about poverty, about segregation in school, about violence both inside homes and outside, about opportunities and challenges and finding your way through the maze of a complicated childhood with grit and grace. None of what he describes sounds easy, but somehow he manages to find a way to make you smile, even laugh loudly as he describes situations that seem made up but also believable.
Whether or not you wonder about the veracity of his tales, there is no doubt about the sincerity of the lessons he learns from each of his experiences – some scary, some silly and some totally bizarre.
Here are some unforgettable quotes:
In a story about his pet dog who wanders off during the day to another house until he confronts the ‘other’ owners, he learns that:
You do not own the thing you love
About growing up in a neighborhood rife with poverty and scarcity, he gets to the heart of the problem of crime and it’s ubiquity in the ghetto:
In the hood, even if you’re not a hardcore criminal, crime is in your life in some way or another. There are degrees to it… crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn;t do; crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the younger kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.
The hood was strangely comforting, but comfort can be dangerous. Comfort provides a floor but also a ceiling.
He tackles the topic of genocide, the deaths of people in Africea and why there isn’t enough recognition of the scale of this human tragedy
I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history, without question. Yes, it was horrific. But I wonder, with African atrocities like in the Congo, how horrific were they? The thing Africans don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation. The Nazis kept meticulous records, took pictures, made films. And that’s really what it comes down to. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. 6 million people killed. We can all look at that number and rightly be horrified. But when you read through the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess.
About domestic abuse that he witnessed in his own home:
The way my mother always explained it, the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. “He’s like an exotic bird collector,” she said. “He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.”
About patriarchy and society and the reasons why victims of domestic violence continue to remain in abusive homes:
It’s so easy from the outside, to put blame on the woman and say, “You just need to leave.”It’s not like my home was the only home where there was domestic abuse….. Where does a woman go in a society where that is the norm? Where the police won’t help her? When her own family won’t help her? Where does a woman go when she leaves one man who hits her and is just as likely to wind up with another man who hits her, maybe even worse than the first? Where does a woman go when she’s single with three kids and she lives in a society that makes her a pariah for being a manless woman? Where she’s seen as a whore for doing that? Where does she go? What does she do?
There is so much to learn through Noah’s own journey, from a hardscrabble life and his phenomenal success (although he doesn’t describe his rise to international fame). Yet, the book does not feel heavy with emotion or remorse or even anger for the unfairness of it all. It is a celebration of life in all its myriad colors and contours. Your life after all, is the story you tell yourself.
And Trevor Noah does a fantastic job of it.
My opinion: If you read just one memoir this year, read this one. You won’t regret it.