A review of “Born A Crime”, the childhood memoir of Trevor Noah

I have been a massive fan of South African born Trevor Noah since in 2015 he took over the hosting of “The Daily Show”, an American satirical look at current affairs that I view religiously. This memoir covers the first two decades of his life before he became a professional comedian and it is written in a wonderfully conversational style through a series of stories that range from the hilarious (such as his childhood excretion in his grandmother’s Soweto home and his mother throwing him out of a car) to the tragic (notably his adolescent experience of physical abuse from his step-father and the shooting of his mother by that same man).

Noah’s mother Patrica Nombuyiselo Noah is black and Xhosa while his father Robert is white Swiss/German. At the time of his birth in Johannesburg, inter-racial sex was illegal in South Africa under the terms of the Immorality Act 1927 which explains the title of the book and why he could not be seen in public with either of his parents. In fact, Noah is light-skinned and, under the apartheid regime, was classed as coloured. Many blacks – including his grandmother – treated him as white, while most whites regarded him as black. Some coloureds hated him because of his blackness, while others hated him because of his whiteness. So he was bullied all the time and, as the constant outsider, he struggled with his sense of identity. 

On his own admission, Noah was a hyperactive child who loved fire and knives – as well as books and computers – and he was often in trouble at both home and school. He finished his education at 17 and, as an adolescent, he was a low-crime hustler in a black ownship who only learned to settle down when he found himself spending a week in a police jail. His memoir brings home vividly the cruel and unjust nature of apartheid as well as some of its absurdities (Chinese were classified as black but Japanese were labelled as white). His life was one of real poverty and deprivation, with the regular risk of violence, but his saving grace was a devoted mother who was full of aspirarion and (tough) love for him.

Noah’s special background means that he is multi-lingual, speaking English as his first language plus Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Afrikaans and German. This skill helped him navigate some of the complexities of inter-racial life in post-apartheid South Afica and it has made him a marvellous mimic which explains how he can deploy so many accents in “The Daily Show”. 


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