Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
I’m glad I got to hear this book because it’s been on my to be read list for a while – not one of the longest in the queue but one of the most anticipated to be sure. Also, note I said “hear”. For the first time, I tried an audio book. I’m glad I got to hear it but I would have preferred to (and still will) read it. I do understand better though how some people who mix audio reading in with their regular reading get through so many books. I haven’t finished a book in a day in forever. If ever. Whereas book reading requires you to give it your attention and nothing but, audio ‘reading’ is background noise while you do other things which makes the reading go faster. Except your attention is that much more divided. And if you fall asleep while reading, it’s harder to find your spot than with a trusty bookmarked paperback.
Upside though is that you fall asleep to narration by the man himself, Trevor Noah. Trevor – stand-up comedian and host of the Daily Show – is a good storyteller both in terms of the structure and pacing of the story itself, and in the cadence of the telling. His voice is pleasant to listen to and his story is compelling.
The story begins in childhood. It’s an oddly familiar childhood, not just because I know so much of the South Africa born comic’s narrative having followed his standup long before he broke in to the American mainstream when he took over hosting the popular satirical pop+news skewering Daily Show in 2015. Nor because I’d watched the documentary on his life, You Laugh but it’s True, and several interviews about himself and the book. But because going to several churches on a given Sunday, children being chased for beatings – true story, one of my primary school teachers chased down a kid who made a break for it during assembly…and caught him too, village drama etc. are (or were during my coming of age) part of the (African) Caribbean experience. Trevor coming of age in South Africa where apartheid kept his parents, a black mother and a white father, apart makes his tale unique, of course. But much is familiar.
As the story advanced in to his adulthood, the source of the familiarity was increasingly the fact that I’d heard the stories before – his abusive stepfather and said stepfather’s attempted murder of his mother, for instance, were not new to me. He jokes about them in his stand up. What’s different is that rather than zeroing in on points of humor – for example, his brother’s ludicrous niceties when he called to tell Trevor that their mother had been shot, he drew out the full narrative – showing the way his brother fell apart, for instance, once big brother Trev was there and he no longer had to keep it together; the telling being heavier because of it. Not without humor, mind, but with insight to the graveness of the situation.
Nothing graver – not even in the land recovering from apartheid – than the abusive cycle his mother was trapped in for much of his childhood. Trevor’s mother is a fighter and a survivor, but even fighters and survivors can be ensnared in such cycles. That he centers her story, albeit filtered through his confusion and frustration, brings the story of women, period, stuck in such abusive ‘relationships’ in to sharp focus. I did not know that his stepfather had also been abusive to him; but it makes sense and perhaps I should have known. So that part was new to me. I think it is courageous of him to share it, courageous of his mother as well.
She is very familiar. She is African and the women I grew up knowing are African-Caribbean, but they have in common a particular strain of strength and resilience, and manage to regard the fact that their life is more struggle than not with a mix of humor and resolve. The fact that they don’t bemoan their existence but push through it, well, I can only aspire to have half their strength.
“She wanted to do something, figured out a way to do it, and then she did it.” – Trevor, writing/speaking of his mom.
And Trevor’s mother Patricia, in spite of her trials, or perhaps because of them, is inspirational. It is clear that this is a book written from a place of love, but also written in a very clear-eyed way. I’m always bemused with people who can put so much of their life out there for public scrutiny and judgment while I mask my truths in fiction; I’m also impressed by it.
Trevor’s storytelling – the time he was thrown from a moving car by his mom (she did it to save them both), the time he spent living in a garage (which made going to school a challenge), the time the police shot up his computer monitor while he was DJing (costing him his entire music collection and his hustle), the time he went joy riding with his step dad’s car and was arrested (and didn’t call home because his mom, like mine, made clear that if you went down that road, don’t call her) – is not just anecdotal. Beyond abuse, it explores other stagnating cycles – like poverty and crime and punishment; how people get stuck sometimes despite their best efforts because, cliché as it sounds to say it, the system is rigged.
Born a Crime is a great ‘read’ – even if you’re not a black Caribbean woman who finds some of the cultural notes and patterns of behaviour familiar, you will find this book engaging – for the insights to South African culture (including the differences between the various tribes, the racial divides, and, of course, the impact of Apartheid) but also as a story of a boy’s love and admiration for his mother and an accounting of that mother’s life, love, and sacrifices. A hard narrative softened by humor and the gentle and enduring bonds of love.
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