Rags to Riches–South African style
Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood
by Trevor Noah
Spiegel and Grau (div. of Random House) 2016, paperback 2019
reviewed by Seana Graham
A couple of nights ago, I watched an older YouTube video of Senator Cory Booker interviewing Trevor Noah on what at the time was his new book, Born a Crime. (I will post a link at the end of this review.) Having recently read the book, I was interested to know, as Booker was, what had brought Noah to write it. His answer was that friend after friend, having heard these stories, wondered why he didn’t tell them in his comedy routines. He said he had always thought that his situation was so unusual that it wouldn’t hold intrinsic interest for many. He hadn’t realized until he wrote the book that, in its very specificity, he would touch on themes that resonated with so many people in so many places around the world.
Although it was almost instantly a bestseller when it came out, I didn’t pay much attention to it then, since celebrity memoirs are not usually at the top of my reading list. (I have since talked to a few others who wouldn’t have read it but for their reading group, or, in Booker’s case, because of the interview he had agreed to do. In all instances, people were very glad that they had.)
But a couple of weeks ago, I found a rather battered copy, complete with a stranger’s scribbled notes and underlining, in a Little Library in my neighborhood and picked it up, thinking, well, why not? I doubted I’d ever get around to reading it, but the price was right. As so often happens with random books that come my way, though, it jumped the queue and I immediately became intrigued. As Senator Booker said, it was an unexpected gift.
Noah starts each chapter of his personal story with a short piece that explains something about South Africa as it was when he grew up there, particularly about the artificial and racist construction known as apartheid. His title is taken from the fact that his very conception was illegal—Black people were not supposed to have sexual relations with white people and people of either race could be jailed for up to four or five years. Children born of these unions could be and were taken away from them and put in orphanages. So Noah’s existence and particularly his racial identity, which in that society was designated as ‘colored’, had to be hidden. His mother, who despite these cruel circumstances had deliberately chosen to have a child, had to resort to all kinds of stratagems to even take him out of their apartment.
I realized partway through writing this review that some people might conclude, “Well, if Trevor Noah could rise from such dismal circumstances to become the host of an American late-night talk show, then anyone can lift themself up.” But he would be the first to refute that argument. He gives the example of a chance he was given as a teen when a white guy he was helping distribute pirated CDs decided to get out of the business and bequeathed his CD writer to Trevor. Black people in South Africa barely had access to computers at that point. To own a CD writer was something he never even would have aspired to.
Noah cites the adage, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” But he goes on to add, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.”
The other incredible asset Noah had was his mother. From beginning to end, the book is peppered with the lively, contentious, loving relationship he had with her while growing up. Even under the worst of apartheid, she managed to leave home, which was too confining for her indomitable spirit, and make her own way. As he says in the interview cited above, he didn’t know until he had finished writing it that the book was a love letter to her.
I will say nothing more about the stunning ending to this book, other than to mention that at the beginning of this memoir, the child Trevor is arguing with his mother about her beloved Christianity, and they are still arguing about that as it closes.
But I’ll leave you to discover who had the last word on that.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. She has published stories in a variety of literary journals. The recent anthology Annihilation Radiation from Storgy Press, includes one of them. Santa Cruz Noir, a title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.