I enjoy reading memoirs because of the glimpse it allows into someone else’s life. When I heard that comedian Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central’s late-night talk show The Daily Show, had written a book about his childhood in South Africa, I was intrigued.
The title of the book, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, refers to Trevor Noah’s birth to a black mother of the African Xhosa tribe and a white father of Swiss-German descent during a time when South Africa was still under apartheid rule and anti-miscegenation laws were in full effect. If the government had learned of his parentage, Trevor could have been taken from his family and his mother thrown in jail. Fearful that someone would report him to the government, Trevor’s mother forced him to spend most of his early years hidden away indoors. Even after the fall of apartheid, he was gawked at, chased, and called names while out in public. Trevor struggled to find his place in a country where, for so many years, his very existence was considered a crime.
It was language that ultimately saved Trevor. By design, South Africa under apartheid never had a unified language. This was a conscious decision by the government to encourage separation of the African tribes – if they could not communicate in the same language, they could never unify. Trevor’s mother, Patricia, taught him that language could gain him entry into social spheres he would normally not be allowed. Trevor Noah started out belonging nowhere but thanks to his ability to speak multiple languages (six and counting), he was ultimately able to fit in everywhere.
A large part of a memoir’s appeal for me is hearing the author’s voice and personality radiate through his own words. Trevor Noah does just that with great success in both the book and audiobook of Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (also available as an ebook through Cook Memorial Library). A gifted linguist, it’s remarkable to listen to Trevor Noah tell his story in his own voice as he seamlessly switches between accents and languages. His humor shines through in his engaging and highly entertaining stories, yet his clear-eyed intelligence and passion for his home country are also evident in the short chapters of South African history he intersperses between stories (helpful in contextualizing the racism and classism that he experienced growing up).
Trevor Noah also gets a gold star in my book for writing what is essentially a 288 page tribute to his mother. As the mother of three boys, I can only hope that someday my sons are as appreciative of me! It’s refreshing to read a memoir in which, despite an unusual and often difficult childhood, the author attributes his success to his parents rather than in spite of them. Although he faced some painful obstacles as a child, Trevor’s undeniably optimistic spirit is contagious. He leaves us with the inspirational thought that language has the power to bring people together and holds the key to uniting us as a single race – the human race.
Can’t get enough of Trevor Noah?
Cook Memorial Public Library District also provides immediate access to two of Trevor Noah’s videos through hoopla, including a documentary following Trevor Noah’s journey from South Africa onto the stage. His most recent comedy special, a Netflix original Trevor Noah: Afraid of the Dark, was released on February 21st. Check out one of the library’s Roku streaming devices for full access to Netflix content.