Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

I took a break from reading books about Finland in order to read Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. My name had been on the waiting list for this book for months, and it finally came in. I had to read it right away since the demand for it is so high. I finished it in only five days and I will resume my pursuit of Fennica as my next read.

I watch Trevor on “The Daily Show” and although my library acquired his book in February 2017, it was only after my visit to Cape Town in September and October of that year (Trevor’s image is plastered everywhere in Cape Town) that I decided to read it. Born a Crime centres on Trevor’s childhood as the title indicates however it does contain stories that occurred when he was already in his mid-twenties.

As the son of a Xhosa mother and a white German father, Trevor was born biracial yet in apartheid South Africa it was not easy to live as a mixed-raced child when the government could easily remove him from his home for looking different. As the product of an illicit relationship, he was, then, literally born of a crime. The book told of the ways his parents tried to keep him a secret. He was told always to play indoors and when he was outside, he always addressed his father by his first name unless anyone should overhear him talking to his “daddy”. Even when he was born, his mother told the doctors:

“‘His father is from Swaziland,’ my mother said, referring to the tiny, landlocked kingdom in the west of South Africa.”

I am sure Trevor knows where Swaziland (now eSwatini) is: it is in the east of South Africa. But anyway–Trevor learned to keep himself out of sight and to run like the blazes at the smell of trouble. He wrote of many incidents when his little legs carried him out of dangerous situations with bullies and police officers.

Trevor’s mother was very religious, going to three different churches each Sunday. Trevor accompanied his mother and described his experiences at each of the churches. While his mother often used the word of God to explain situations and to compel Trevor to do certain things, by his weekly church attendance even as a young boy Trevor knew how to use holy scripture to explain the opposite of what his mother was saying. It was funny to read the two of them arguing what they each believed the Lord was telling them to do.

Trevor had the blessing of a mother who believed in educating her children, and she showered her son with books from an early age. Trevor loved to read and was multilingual. His first language was English, but he could also speak Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans and other national languages. I could feel an immediate sense of kinship with Trevor when he wrote about his beloved collection of books:

“My books were my prized possessions. I had a bookshelf where I put them, and I was so proud of it. I loved my books and kept them in pristine condition. I read them over and over, but I did not bend the pages or the spines. I treasured every single one.”

Same with me! You would swear that every book on my bookshelves was bought only yesterday. I treat mine with the same immaculate care. Look at the books in my Beatles collection, for example. I acquired them when I was fourteen or fifteen years old and read them over and over. You’d never know it by looking at them.

Born a Crime contains pages of dialogue which read at a rapid clip and the other parts of the story read at the same pace. I read the book in my head using Trevor’s voice, naturally. I could imagine sitting across from him as a guest on “The Daily Show” hearing him share these childhood stories. The most shuddering story was in the final chapter, entitled “My Mother’s Life”, where Trevor recounted his mother’s shooting by his drunken stepfather. As I watch Trevor regularly I already knew a bit about this story, because he has talked about it on his show. I will not spoil any more of the story within this review. Trevor relived this horror with such raw emotion, shock and pain, that I could imagine him being soaked in tears as he put it all down on paper. You will laugh your head off at some of the incidents young Trevor manages to pull off but this final chapter will turn your emotions upside down.

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