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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Review: Witty memoir on troubled childhood

Born a Crime
Born a Crime

A

t the time celebrity comedian Trevor Noah of South Africa was born, cross-cultural relationships were a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison.

Born a Crime and Other Stories by Trevor Noah is a hilarious and touching memoir of the mixed-race man born during the waning years of Apartheid. Starting with a hair-raising escape out a moving vehicle, Noah’s life has been a series of adventures and mishaps.

Racially classified as coloured, he was born in 1984 to a black South African mother and Swiss father. Neither parent could be seen with him in public for fear the police would take him away.

So, Noah spent much of his early childhood indoors and alone.

“To this day, you can leave me alone for hours and I’m perfectly happy entertaining myself,” writes Noah.

Given the extent of his public seclusion, it is any wonder that Noah developed social skills. But he learned several African languages and discovered a knack for making people laugh, allowing him to easily make friends of different races.

Noah was raised by his mother, a woman of great courage, foresight and faith in God, who refused to be limited by a system that denied Africans the most basic rights and opportunities.

From the time Noah understood race classification at 11 years old, he chose to identify himself as a black South African.

“The world saw me as coloured… I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black.”

As indicated by the title, the book is a collection of anecdotes of naughty-boy escapades, three Sunday services each week, an acne-ridden adolescence and fumbled adventures in love. Crime, poverty and violence were the norm in the townships of his youth, as was the tip-toeing around an abusive step-father at home.

Born a Crime is more than just a celebrity coming-of-age story. It is a perceptive description living in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, as seen through the eyes of a mixed-race boy who did not fit into any demographic. You can see where Noah gets his insightful views on race relations today.

Noah is frank about the harsh realities of segregation, and his tough upbringing, without getting gruesome. He narrates with a light-hearted tone, in brisk pace, uses conversational language and does not shy away from expletives.

A New York Times bestseller, the book mostly focuses on Noah’s childhood. Each chapter begins with an outline of the historic and social context in South Africa. In this regard, the book felt as though it was written for Western audiences.

The unshakeable love of Noah’s no-nonsense mother is the most poignant aspect. She deliberately chose to have a mixed-race child in a country where the odds were stacked against a half-black man. Yet it is her courageous spirit and unconventional choices that underpin Noah’s escape from a hopeless future.

"She taught me to challenge authority and question the system,” he writes of his mother.

From working as a DJ in Soweto, to a successful career as comedian, Noah, 33, is now the host of The Daily Show, an acclaimed American late-night and satire talk show.


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