Free Press Journal

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


Title: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Author: Trevor Noah

Publisher: Hachette India

Price: Rs 399

Pages: 288

At the very outset, let me state that Trevor Noah’s memoir, ‘Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood’, should be compulsory reading in schools (across the world). The same situation in life is likely to elicit different reactions from every soul and even more varied will be their manner of recollecting it. Trevor’s ability to present several disturbing and dark events in the lightest and most humorous manner makes him a true role model for to take what life throws at you with a smile requires a lot of inner and outer strength (muscle power).

I, as a reader, was struck by the relevance of the book from the very first line, “The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.”

The writer exposes the mechanism of the not just Apartheid, but at the same time it depicts how countries are even now ruled by politicians with the use of hate and fear-mongering, be it Donald Trump or…

Trevor’s memoir is in an anecdotal format about his childhood which was spent in South Africa at a historically significant period when the nation was letting go of Apartheid and becoming ‘free’.  It is the tale of a mischievous young boy who grows into an enterprising young man and also about a boy who doesn’t really fit anywhere.

But how can that boy’s journey be anything but tumultuous, if his very birth was a crime.  The boy finds himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. As Noah says, “Where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality.” And so Trevor, born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison, is living proof of his parents’ indiscretion.

At a time when our nation is still struggling to come to terms with inter-religious and inter-caste marriages, Trevor’s words ring truer in my ears: “In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent…Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke…race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.”

Trevor brings his world alive for the reader with wit and honesty. Being a ‘colored’ person, it was dangerous for his mother to be seen with him. “She would hold my hand or carry me, but if the police showed up she would have to drop me and pretend I wasn’t hers.”

Growing up in such an environment isn’t ideal for any child, but Trevor’s guardian angel, his mother, ensured that he came out unscathed (well, may be with a bruise or two). This book should also be essential reading for all those sociologists and economists who, while sitting in cozy little classrooms or coffee joints, expound and philosophize about the choices in front of the poor/disenfranchised and what they can do to break away.

Trevor says “People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.” And when he says, “We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.” Or when he writes, “People always lecture the poor: “Take responsibility for yourself! Make something of yourself!” But with what raw materials are the poor to make something of themselves?”

The saddest parts of the book are when Trevor uses his pen most deftly and ensures you still smile, be it his mother getting shot, him being thrown from a minibus or being arrested, spending time in jail or being forced to eat caterpillars for dinner.

The book is also an ode to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. It is a thank you note to the woman who “did what school didn’t. She taught me how to think.” It was her tough love that ensured that he lived. As she put it, “The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.”

Some of the gems that she passes on to him include, “Trevor, remember a man is not determined by how much he earns. You can still be a man of the house and earn less than your woman. Being a man is not what you have, it’s who you are. Being more of a man doesn’t mean your woman has to be less than you.”

Ultimately, Trevor’s journey from the means streets of South Africa to succeeding Jon Stewart as the host of Emmy and Peabody Award-winning ‘The Daily Show’ is largely a gift from his mother. And thats how he puts it in the book’s dedication: ‘My first fan. Thank you for making me a man.’