South Africa: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Today I’m going to be reviewing what is without a doubt my favourite book that I have had the pleasure of reading, or more specifically listening to as an audiobook, this year and that is Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. Many of you will probably know Trevor Noah from his television show, the Daily Show on Comedy Central. Honestly, I don’t watch his TV show, I had seen a few youtube videos where he railed on Trump that I thought were great but I can safely say that did not stop me from enjoying this book.

born-a-crimeBorn a Crime is a non-fiction autobiographical book in which Trevor Noah tells us all about his childhood growing up as amixed race child in South Africa. His mother was a black South African woman while his father was a white Swiss German immigrant. When he was born it was illegal for a white person to have sexual intercourse with a non-white person and if a child resulted from such a union this was punishable by up to five years in prison. This caused issues for Trevor’s parents and as such up until apartheid ended and this law was repealed when Trevor was five, he spent a lot of his childhood indoors in his mothers apartment and he only got to visit his father who lived nearby every so often and always in secret, lest his parent’s crime be discovered.

Born a Crime explores many different issues. For example, quite naturally there is a big focus on apartheid South Africa and how the white minority were able to oppress the black and non-white majority for so long before the black community finally fought back and sought to have the system changed. In particular, Noah focuses on the power which language has to divide people. This language divide was something which he learned to take advantage of early on, learning many of South Africa’s tribal languages, Afrikaners and English, thus enabling himself to fit into just about any situation. I found this aspect of the book to be really interesting as I hadn’t really considered this aspect of apartheid at all, in school I had learned about the way in which people were divided and accorded certain privileges depending on which racial group they were considered to fall into but languages and tribal divides were never something which we discussed or which I had even thought about.

Another important theme which is explored is identity. In particular the book deals with how Noah came to terms with his own identity as a mixed race child and how he had to choose which community he wanted to identify with; the black community, the white community or the mixed community, and the significance of this decision for him. This was another really interesting aspect of the book and it was really wonderful to see him consider all of the elements and influences which made him himself. In particular the influence of his grandmother and the township she lived him and what he learned from spending time there. Also the influence of his mother, a fiercely independent woman who did what she wanted laws and social stigma be damned, was particularly strong. I learned a lot about South Africa from this aspect of the book but I also learned a lot about Trevor Noah as a person and what has shaped him and that was wonderful.

Finally, I think the last reason why I loved this book was the comedic element. I mean I expected going in that this was going to be a funny book, I mean Trevor Noah is a professional comedian, he should be pretty funny. Furthermore, I’d seen some videos of him on youtube and I knew that his comedy aligned relatively well with my own sense of humour. However, I was still impressed by just how much Trevor Noah made me laugh while listening to him narrate the audiobook. He was an absolute handful of a child who really hated obeying the rules so naturally the story of him pooing on the ground instead of going to the outside toilet was pretty funny. I think it was the way in which he told it and reflective sense through which he viewed the incident through which made it that much more hilarious in spite of the horrible situation and the  distress he caused his grandmother and great-grandmother in trying to cover up what he had done. The incident where he brought a friend of his called Hitler to dance in a Jewish school probably should’t have been funny but the way in which there was a  misunderstanding and a lack of adequate communication was hilarious even if I still feel slightly bad for laughing at it.

I think where the strength of this book lies is that even where Noah had me cackling with laughter, in relating each of those hilarious incidents he taught me vast amounts about South Africa, poverty, racial relations and so much more. Furthermore, Noah expertly balances the hilarious with the serious and manages to communicate an important, intelligent and coherent message through this book. This is one surpassed my expectations, I just wish it had been longer because I’m greedy.

Rating: 4.5 stars


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