I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love reading the memoirs of people who’ve lived extraordinary lives, and Trevor Noah is no exception to this rule. Born in South Africa during apartheid, Noah takes the reader on a critical, yet comical ride, with short stories, essays, and his observations about life. Born a Crime is sprinkled with profound insights about race and culture, with just a touch of humour, and succeeds in telling one of the most thought-provoking works of our time.
From beginning to end, this memoir keeps the reader entertained by changing narrative styles, including temporal shifts, and switching up locations to keep us engaged as we begin to get a glimpse of what it must have been like to grow up in South Africa during a time when it was illegal for black people and white people to associate with each other. Unimaginable by today’s standards living in Canada, Noah dually succeeds in giving the shocking facts about what life was like, while at the same time breathing laughter into situations that were probably much more frightening than we can imagine.
From my perspective, this is the way in which Noah survived such a dangerous and potentially scarring experience; with a sense of humour. Something he arguably inherited from his powerful mother, who I daresay is the greatest influence in Noah’s life. It’s clear throughout the book that he absolutely adores his mother, even though they didn’t always get along, he has so much respect for her, but this can sometimes become distracting while reading the book. At certain times I almost felt like it was a biography of her life, rather than the memoirs of Trevor Noah. Either way it’s clear to see that she was, and still is, an amazing woman worthy of such high praise.
Some of my favourite parts of the novel, were when Noah got political and critical. I felt that I was able to relate to much of what Noah discussed, largely because of my Indigenous heritage, and the fact that growing up on a reservation is in some way reminiscent of segregation of races and designed to discriminate against native peoples. Here is an excerpt that particularly resonated with me due to this correlation:
“I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history, without question. Yes it was horrific. But I often wonder, with African atrocities like in the Congo, how horrific were they? The thing Africans don’t have that the Jewish people do have is documentation. The Nazis kept meticulous records, took pictures, made films. And that’s really what it comes down to. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. Six million people killed. We can all look at that number and be rightly horrified. But when you read through the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess” – Trevor Noah, Born a Crime, p. 195.
I don’t know about you, but after reading this what immediately came to my mind was the residential school system which saw Canada forcibly remove thousands of First Nations children from their homes and put them into church run schools to “beat the indian out of them.” In other words, to assimilate them by stripping away their culture and identity, causing a ripple affect of poor parenting, alcoholism, addictions, and abusive behaviour to run through generations of Indigenous families.
Canada is just now beginning to come to terms with the fact that they have such a dark, genocidal history, but for a long time they were trying to destroy the evidence, so to speak, by tearing down all of the residential school buildings, and getting rid of any medical records of the children who went there. Luckily, at the old residential school located in Brantford Ontario – the Mohawk Institute – they are campaigning to raise funds to save the evidence and turn the building into a museum, much like the concentration camps of nazi germany serve as proof that what happened actually took place.
While I did thoroughly enjoy this book, my small criticisms of it, is that sometimes it focuses too much on making it a lighthearted book, Noah’s mother features a bit too heavily, and there are some inconsistencies in the stories that Noah tells. For these reasons I am giving this book a solid 4 out of 5 stars. I also wish Noah talked about how he came to be a host on the daily show, and what it’s like to have become so successful after growing up in apartheid South Africa, but this doesn’t come up almost at all.
I really hope he continues to write because he’s undeniably talented, resilient, and smart. After reading Born a Crime, I’m an even bigger fan than I was before.