Friday, February 24, 2017

Nonfiction: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Today's selection was one of those books I could not get my hands on fast enough. But every Christmas Day, I take a trip to BookPeople in downtown Austin, because it is one of the few things that are open on that day. And, since it is Christmas, it is possibly the one day of the year that 6th street is not crowded with people. So I decided that was the day I would buy Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, and was almost not able to when the store only had one copy left, and no one could find it. Fortunately I did, and it made Christmas Day that much better. 

Genre, Themes, History: This of course is a nonfiction book, where current The Daily Show host Trevor Noah talks about his life and the many adventures, and misadventures, he had growing up in South Africa. When he was born, apartheid was still very much a thing in South Africa, so it was illegal for a black woman and a white man to have sexual relations. Of course, it still happened, and Noah is proof with a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father, hence the title of the book. He recalls his early childhood days when he was not allowed outside to play freely with the other children because of the color of his skin and the fear that he would be taken away. And while he knew his father, he could not acknowledge him in public, and vice versa. From there, Noah continues to chronicle his life in Johannesburg, South Africa. For the most part, the story is told in chronological order, but there are times when he will circle back to important moments in his life, specifically when it came to moments that include his abusive stepfather, Abel. It may be Noah's story, and all of the experiences are from his point of view, but I think it could be effectively argued that the actual main character is his mother. Noah tells the story of a stubborn woman who made sure to give him what she never had so that he would not be subjected to the same fate many young men share in South Africa, especially many black men. The two of them were a team, and with all of the dangers that even a post-apartheid South Africa under Nelson Mandela had to offer, the two of them managed to survive and make it work. They had their difficulties and disagreements, and she was never hesitant to discipline him - and he admits to also being a bad child - but ultimately, they were in this thing together, and it showed. The story does not end with Noah coming to America or with him becoming the host of The Daily Show. The book is all about his life in South Africa and the support of his mom.

My Verdict: There are so many reasons to love this book. First, there is the way Noah tells his story. It is just as honest and funny and forthright as anyone who is familiar with his comedy would expect it to be. Second, it is a crash course in the recent history and culture of South Africa. You think you know about South Africa, and apartheid, and Nelson Mandela...but unless you lived it, you don't. Noah lived it everyday for most of his life, and he does not shy away from the often brutal reality that was daily life in Johannesburg. There is a lot more to it then just black against white, and often Noah describes the feeling of being at the center of it, yet not really belonging to any one group. Third, there is his mother. This stubborn and independent woman made up her mind to make her own way and raise her son to do better than she did. Every story is more jaw-dropping and hilarious/sad/shocking/emotional than the one that comes before it. True, Noah would not have these stories to tell if he had not grown up in South Africa. But he did grow up in a place where his very existence was often a danger to himself and those around him, and everyone can learn a great deal from his decision to tell his story. 

Favorite Moment: There are so many to choose from. But I decided on the moment when Noah describes eventually meeting other people like himself that were also half black and half white, but instead of staying in South Africa, they chose to emigrate somewhere else. Before then, he did not realize that leaving was even an option. "Imagine being thrown out of an airplane. You hit the ground and break all your bones, you go to the hospital and you heal and you move on and finally put the whole thing behind you - and then one day somebody tells you about parachutes. That's how I felt."

Recommended Reading: For humor while discussing the African-American experience, I recommend How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston. For a humorous memoir about the life of a comedy legend, I recommend Born Standing Up by Steve Martin.

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