Book Review: Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah is the kind of story teller who immediately sucks you into the world of his story and keeps you on the edge of your seat. He’s careful to keep his story accurately close to home- retaining the indigenous references- while putting every one of them in proper context for his non-South African audience through simple contemporary analogies. As a result, every reader will find this book relatable one way or the other. A collection of memoirs of his childhood in South Africa during apartheid is a portrayal of Trevor the Comedian in a deeper, more comprehensive sense. It’s a second coming for him. It’s Trevor saying; look, you might know me as the funny guy, but here is who I really am- where it all started.

Born A Crime tells a story of a boy born at a time when it was a capital offense for a white person to have sex, later alone have a child with a black person. It reveals his Xhosa mother’s deliberate, almost calculated effort to go against the law so as to have him with a white man of Swiss origin. This dangerous beginning would come to rob him of adequate time with his father, present major identity difficulties and at the same time accord him privileges that many black kids would never know- both within and outside his community.

On the implications of oppression and privilege, Trevor tells of how a society that had drawn lines, white and black, put him at an even greater disadvantage than the black community when it came to fitting in; be it being accepted at school or finding the right jail gang to hang with. It is however his being colored that also allowed him many privileges. He tells the story of life at grandmother’s home in Soweto where he, despite being the naughtiest, is exempted from being caned as a punishment, citing that a white child was never to be beaten as their skin would turn color or that he’d possibly die. A privilege that he says gave him an understanding of why it was difficult for white people to want to end a system which as oppressive as it was to many black lives, accorded them so much comfort and privilege.

One experience centered character “Hitler” makes effective mockery of the colonial education system that does little if anything, in building critical thought. “We weren’t taught to think, period. All we were taught was that in 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and in 1941 he invaded the Soviet Union and in 1943 he did something else. They’re just facts. Memorize them, write them down for the test and forget them.” Pg. 95

Each character in this book illustrates a theme among race, gender, family, relationships, survival, family, freedom and religion all of which are highlighted in the different memoir chapters. One character however dominates the narrative. Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah (his mother) – a highly religious, free-spirited, witty, independent and strong willed woman will not let anything or anyone bring her down. A chapter on her personal life with an abusive man, a painful yet resilient journey that leaves a bullet in her head, will get you angry but leave you smiling in the end. Trevor’s is a story of humor infused hardship- enough to let you understand the gravity of the pain while allowing you a moment to have a good laugh.

He, while telling this story goes off the story trail in a bid to be thorough. You’ll find that in several chapters, he introduces an alternate experience from the one that he’s sharing at the moment. That back and forth might lose some readers at a certain point but it is equally easy to get back into the story.
Born A Crime ultimately is a raw, witty, gripping account of Trevor Noah’s eventful childhood that will craftily secure the reader’s undivided attention and demand critical thought into issues pertaining to social consciousness.


This book review was first published in The Daily Monitor on 22nd January, 2017