Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Before reading this book, I knew Trevor Noah from the few YouTube clips I had seen and from conversation with friends following him more closely. I knew he was funny, I knew he did incredible accents, and I knew he was South African. I knew little else. What I love most about this book is that it shows that the 'little else' there is to know is a whole hell of a lot and that, beyond his comedy, Noah is an incredible, insightful storyteller.

His stories begin and end with his mother, from the time she threw him out of a moving minibus to save his life, to the time he saved hers. They have a close but unique relationship, marked first by love but also by the violence surrounding them, whether it was apartheid, poverty caused by decades of structural violence, domestic abuse or, in one gruesome example, animal abuse (this last part seems to have bothered me in reading it more than it bothered Noah). 

Beyond love for his mother, there is also love for South Africa and love for its people etched in these pages. Noah tells stories of speaking Afrikaans, Tsonga, Sotho, Xhosa and Zulu, in addition to the English his mother taught him as his first language. He used his chameleon tongue to confuse groups of people who tried to put him in a box, showing that language connected him to others more easily than race separated him from them. While Noah acknowledges that he was always a bit of an outsider, language allowed him to connect to most everyone he interacted with, from the school playground to, in one example, a jail cell. 

Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being’.
— Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

His mother is absolutely the most prominent character, and anyone reading these pages witnesses his appreciation for and admiration of this woman, but the story of his father is also an interesting one. When he met Noah's mother, he was much older, a Swiss German man living a few apartments down from his mother when she was young and living illegally in Johannesburg. They became friends and she quite straightforwardly requested he provide her with the sperm to create a child, saying he did not need to have anything to do with her and the child. But he wanted to be a part of their lives, and he was until Noah was a young teenager, leaving for Cape Town only once Noah's mother's new husband no longer made visitation between father and son possible. Luckily, this part of the story ended well, and Noah reconnected with his father as an adult.

In the years before Noah became a comedian, he worked with his friends from high school in Alex township, selling bootleg CDs, DJing and trading and pawning to make a profit. He tells stories of his illegal activities acknowledging that they were simply a part of life there - no one asked questions. So he would sell and trade stolen goods, and steal sometimes himself (though this seemed to have happened more in his earlier youth). It was only when he received a stolen camera, full of pictures of the family from whom it was stolen, that the reality of his activities sunk it. Noah also acknowledges that, unlike some of his friends, he always had a way out. 

The only authority my mother recognized was God’s. God is love and the Bible is truth—everything else was up for debate. She taught me to challenge authority and question the system. The only way it backfired on her was that I constantly challenged and questioned her.
— Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

This way out once again brings us back to his mother, a woman who spent her life working to create opportunities for her son that she had never had, dragging him to full days of church each Sunday and teaching him that God was her husband, her source of strength and her protection, as she raised Noah, as she dealt with an abusive husband and, ultimately, as she escaped death at her ex-husband's hands. Just as Noah starts and ends his memoir with his mother, he also starts and ends his story with faith. The faith that pushed her to overcome any obstacle to reach her Sunday services, and the faith that stopped four bullets aimed at her head.

From sometimes dark and dangerous experiences, coupled with a childhood emerging from apartheid as a child of a white and black parent, Noah had a lot of material at which to become this impressive storyteller. What amazes me, and what I cannot wait to explore (immediately, on Netflix), is that he also became a comedian, finding humor and hope in trauma, recognizing the wealth, not dearth, of his South African childhood.

I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother, her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold onto the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass kicking your mom gave you or the ass kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on. You’ll have a few bruises and they’ll remind you of what happened and that’s ok. But after a while, the bruises fade and they fade for a reason. Because now, it’s time to get up to some shit again.
— Trevor Noah, Born a Crime