In the spirit of full disclosure, a confession: I’ve met Trevor Noah.
Well, met might be a bit strong. I enjoyed a 30-second encounter with him while he signed my copy of his recently-released memoir, Born a Crime.
I’d already finished the book, though, so my opinion was not coloured by his charming demeanour. Or his dimples.
The short version is that I loved it. The book is funny and sad and harrowing and touching. Not a surprise, given that Noah is articulate and savvy, and grew up as a mixed child under apartheid in South Africa. It would be hard to have a boring childhood, under those circumstances, or write a boring memoir about it.
The story itself is absorbing and moving. Noah’s mother features prominently as a strong, stubborn, loving woman who takes no shit from anyone, including her son. As a black woman under apartheid, there are many things she’s told she can’t do, but she proceeds to do them all (while, I suspect, giving the regime a long, loud middle finger).
Noah seems to have inherited his mother’s indomitable spirit. This made him hell on wheels as a child which, like everything else, becomes a fraught racial and political issue. His grandmother can’t discipline him because – as she puts it – his skin changes colour when she spanks him, and it makes her nervous. His cousins’ skin doesn’t do that – it stays black. That, his grandmother understands. Him, she doesn’t.
This is presented as a funny anecdote, which it is. But it’s also a theme that runs through the book. Noah exists between worlds, languages, identities, and people rarely know what to make of him. He manages by finding common ground with all of them, partly through language. Noah speaks English, Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Afrikaans, and some German. This, he argues, is how he survived – speak with someone in their own language, and you are no longer the other.
If you watch The Daily Show, you have a sense of Noah – the vocabulary he uses, the way he structures his thoughts, his favourite turns of phrase. He’s smart, and funny, and self-aware, and that voice is all over Born a Crime – no ghost-writer here. Outside the structure of late-night tv, though, Noah lets loose with introspection and idiosyncrasies that he generally reigns in. And I’m glad he does.
I devoured this book, and I was actually sad when it ended. It isn’t just for fans of Noah, either – anyone who’s at all interested in South Africa, apartheid, or race relations will love Born a Crime. I can’t recommend it highly enough.