I’ve been railing a bit on the genre of comedy memoirs lately. Oftentimes they don’t feel like proper memoirs, but are instead grab bags of listicles, character defenses and stories about hanging out with other comedians. That said, I still read most of them, so yeah, carry on.
When I purchased Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, I mostly expected a book packed with observational humor reminiscent of his Comedy Central standup special, Lost in Translation. I did not expect this incredibly vulnerable, sincere look into what it’s like to be a little boy who doesn’t fit into the world of apartheid. (To be fair though, the name should have tipped me off.)
Trevor Noah’s book does not:
-Mention Jon Stewart or The Daily Show at all
-Humblebrag even once about how he’s actually not that famous
-Namedrop his famous friends
-Give advice to people who want to be just like him
-Have much to do at all with being a successful comedian
Instead, it’s a true memoir, looking mostly inward at his own family, but outward at the society that rendered his childhood so broken. In short, this book is incredible, because Noah’s own life is so jaw-droppingly incredible.
Whatever stresses we think we’ve faced in our own lives, we haven’t been thrown out of a bus to avoid being killed, had to sleep in cars in our abusive step-dad’s car repair shop, or had to subsist on little but caterpillars. We’ve also never felt the distinct “pop” of a goat eye bursting in our mouths. All of these subjects are covered in raw detail in Born a Crime.
The story focuses exclusively on the life of young Trevor, who was actually “born a crime” to the extent that his mom had to pretend she didn’t know him out in public. Sometimes, he even had to avoid leaving his house in order to avoid arousing suspicion. At other times, his light skin afforded him privileges, like being beaten less often than his cousins or failing to be identified for crimes.
Noah is a gifted writer, and brings his childhood to life in visceral detail that pivots from humorous to heartbreaking. A story about his friends’ dance/DJ group getting kicked out of a diversity rally for shouting “Go Hitler!” At a dancer named Hitler is particularly funny. It’s also eye-opening to hear his perspective on just what the name “Hitler” means to South African boys who were given very different educations than our own.
His final story about his mom being shot in the head by his step-dad will have you turning pages and biting your nails.
Noah’s story is particularly relevant in an age where it seems like anything could happen to our own democracy. Despite the election of Trump, we’re still hesitant to talk about racial inequality as any sort of organized, strategic movement. Sure, we talk about institutional racism, but it has a flavor of being grandfathered in, a relic that has inconveniently and unjustly stuck around. Hearing his vivid account of growing up during apartheid, it becomes clear that xenophobia is a sharp weapon of any corrupt government. To further elaborate on this point, Noah also wrote an editorial in the New York Times recently talking about the radical act of finding common ground in a society that is being purposely divided. (Whether or not that justifies playing nice with Tomi Lahren is up to you.)
As we look at Donald Trump fumbling about and refusing to take intelligence briefings, it becomes all too easy to chalk the outpouring of racism today up to stupidity and ignorance. What Noah’s book brings to life is that the people pulling the strings of a racially-divided country are much more calculated than we think. While their foot soldiers may be trolls on Twitter who don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re,” the people benefitting from racial inequality have a sinister method to their madness.
Born a Crime is an eye-opening read on a societal/macro level, but also an extremely well-written personal story on a micro-level. Whatever your feelings about Trevor Noah (he seems to get dragged through the mud relatively frequently), there’s a lot to be gained by reading this book. I would suggest the audiobook, which he reads himself. It’s a pleasure to listen to, plus you get to hear him sing dinner prayers and talk in his “child Trevor” voice.
It’s unfair to categorize this book as a comedy memoir. It’s its own beast, and we should start looking at Trevor Noah that way, too. Whatever your opinion on him now might be, he’s shaping up to be a lot more than Jon Stewart’s replacement. And that’s a good thing.