Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review of "Born A Crime" by Trevor Noah




Trevor Noah, a comedian and the current host of 'The Daily Show' is a very funny guy.....and I expected this memoir to be full of witty jokes. It's not. The book is about Trevor growing up in South Africa when apartheid was coming to an end. Apartheid and it's aftermath left the impoverished black population of South Africa with hard lives and few opportunities. Nevertheless, Trevor infuses his story with hope and humor.

Trevor was born in 1984, to a white Swiss father and a black mother from the Xhosa tribe. At that time, apartheid was still in effect and mixing of the races was forbidden by law. Thus, light-skinned Trevor was evidence of a crime. The child - who lived with his mother in a black neighborhood - had to stay hidden inside during his early childhood....lest he be grabbed by the authorities and taken to an orphanage.

The dismantling of apartheid in the early 1990's eased the situation for blacks and people of mixed race (classified as 'colored'), and Trevor and his mother - named Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah - embarked on a rather tumultuous life. Patricia acquired secretarial skills and got an office job, which meant the Noahs were a little bit better off than many black South African families. Patricia even had a junky old car which - being a devout Christian - she used to 'schlep' Trevor to three or four different churches every Sunday.

When Patricia wasn't working or at church she loaded Trevor into the car and took him to places that cost no money, like parks, picnics, and sightseeing past white people's mansions. Trevor's mom had the attitude "I'm going to give you everything I never had." Patricia made it her mission to provide food for Trevor's body and books for his mind - and to afford this, spent almost no money on anything else. As Trevor describes it: their car was a tin can on wheels; they lived in the middle of nowhere; they had shabby furniture; they changed the channels on their tiny black and white TV with pliers; and they wore clothes from thrift stores.

During good times Trevor's family ate chicken, but when times were tough they ate food meant for dogs like 'sawdust' (meat scraps) and 'soup bones.' During one terrible month - when the mechanic business of Trevor's stepfather was failing - the family had to live on marogo (wild spinach) cooked with mopane worms (caterpillars). Trevor describes this as the worst time of his life.

Trevor was a self-described 'naughty child' whose high energy level and mischievous pranks got him into lots of trouble. Trevor also loved fire and once burned down the house of a white family. To escape spankings from his mother, Trevor would streak out of the house and through the neighborhood - with Patricia close behind. As a result Trevor became a very fast runner, a talent that would be useful later on - when he had to run away from cops and tough guys. Though Patricia didn't spare the spankings, she punished Trevor 'out of love' - and he reciprocated the affection.

Trevor was an enterprising youth and found inventive ways to make money. By the time he was in high school Trevor was selling pirated CDs he made at home - an enterprise that led to deejaying parties in black townships. Trevor also partnered up with a couple of friends to run a kind of 'loan and barter' business, which netted plenty of extra cash for McDonald's, beer, and electronic equipment.

On the downside, Trevor never fit in anywhere. Being a light-skinned black, Trevor wasn't accepted by blacks, whites, Indians, Asians, or colored people (most of whom have a complicated ancestry beginning with Dutch settlers and black women). To compensate Trevor made it his business to learn many of the languages spoken in South Africa, including English, Afrikaans, Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and more. This made Trevor a sort of 'chameleon' who could get by with everyone.

Trevor also had bad luck with girls, partly because he had terrible acne. Trevor describes several attempts to get a girlfriend, and these tales are amusing....and a little heartbreaking. In high school, for example, Trevor's friend set him up with a beautiful girl named Babiki for the matric dance (prom). Trevor and his friend hung out with Babiki and her sisters for a couple of months before the dance, getting acquainted. Then, on the night of the matric dance, Babiki refused to get out of the car and go inside. Trevor realized - for the very first time - that Babiki couldn't speak English and he couldn't speak Pedi (her language). Ha ha ha.

The worst thing that happened in Trevor's life was his mother's marriage to Abel, a car mechanic with a murderous temper and a strong 'master of the house' attitude. Patricia sold her house, quit her job, and impoverished the family to help Abel with his mechanic business....to no avail. Abel was a terrible businessman who drank up the profits and came home intoxicated and abusive. In fits of anger Abel would hit Patricia and slap Trevor around. By the time Trevor finished high school he had to move out. Patricia ultimately left Abel, who eventually became so distraught that he shot her in the head.

In addition to his personal story Trevor talks about the evils of apartheid.....how the system purposely fomented discord among black tribes (especially Zulu and Xhosa), impoverished the non-white population, denied non-whites a decent education, left them untrained for jobs, made them feel inferior, took their homes and land, forced them into barren homelands, etc. etc. etc. Trevor touches on how this affected himself, his extended family, and his friends.....and the story is sad, bleak and dismaying.

Trevor's mother survived being shot in the head.....and the book ends there. Trevor doesn't talk about becoming a comedian, his show business career, or becoming host of The Daily Show. The program's original host, Jon Stewart, was terrific and I was sad when he left. Still, Trevor is doing a good job (in my opinion). He's personable, smart and funny.....and his impressions and accents are spot on. Trevor makes me laugh every time I watch the show. If Trevor writes a sequel to this book, I'll read it for sure. :)

I'd highly recommend the book to fans of celebrity memoirs and to readers interested in apartheid and South Africa.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for a copy of the book.

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