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In Born a Crime, the comedian who's taken America by storm offers insightful stories of his youth and growing up in apartheid South Africa
Eduan R. Maggo
Noah brings perspective to the absurdities of a system where he couldn’t acknowledge his mother or his father in public and had to spend most of his childhood indoors reading to avoid the curiosity his light complexion would invite in a black neighbourhood.
Equal parts funny and terrifying, Noah employs the storytelling that’s made him a hit internationally. He balances the humour and serious asides he’s become known for on stage and TV, recounting how he became the chameleon he is — able to bridge multiple gaps through an affinity for languages, and rise from the township to host one of the most influential satirical news shows on television; to be both conspiratorial insider and flabbergasted outsider; to adapt to most situations.
The reader shares his excitement when he writes about his joy traversing the city in a rickety old Volkswagen with his mother. We’re as mystified as the young boy by the logic she applies for needing to attend three church services on a Sunday (and at least as many religious meetings during the week). We feel personally invested in the young man’s forays into the dating world. We’re complicit as the budding entrepreneur plays fast and loose with intellectual property rights to make a living. And we’re as horrified by the abuse the family suffers at the hands of an alcoholic parent, a stepfather who would shoot his mother in the head.
Stand-up comic and host of The Daily Show Trevor Noah recently released a collection of stories from his childhood and youth. If this premise sounds familiar, it’s because this has been the bread-and-butter of Noah’s comedic career on stage. But where one might expect a staid product, the memoir format offers him more scope to delve into the accounts of him growing up; he goes beyond the punchlines.
An only child for a long while, the book is as much a reflection on the life of his mother, a Xhosa woman who defied tradition and the law to stick it to the man by having a child with a Swiss/German expat. Now this is in apartheid-era South Africa, when relationships across the colour line were a punishable crime. And that’s where Noah, neither black nor white, gets his title, Born a Crime.
Honest and candid, Noah spares neither himself nor the society he grew up in to explore how he and it came into being, and the intersectionality between the two. He does this with deft compassion that precludes derision for any party, including the various sections that could be considered the villains in this tale.
In writing about where he comes from personally, Noah also tells the story of disparate communities — in the broadest sense of the word — caught in the middle, mainly of the racial divide but implicitly along all binary systems. His is the story of a person who doesn’t quite fit in — in his own house or even family, let alone the society he finds himself in. And from that the book derives universal appeal. For as much as this is a South African story, it is also one that takes on greater importance in a geopolitical environment that values uniformity (specifically white nativism) over diversity.
The title alone suggests an extraordinary ride, and Noah delivers on this promise. He writes with wit and intelligence, delivering a fresh perspective on issues of class, race and gender.
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