Born A Crime
Hachette Publishers Australia
Trevor Noah is the host of The Daily Show in the United States and has just published his memoir Born a Crime, documenting his life in South Africa under apartheid and then the country’s entry into a post-apartheid era in the 1990s.
The title of the book comes from the illegality of his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. As a result, Trevor was kept indoors for the early years of his life, his mother going to extreme efforts to hide him from a government that could steal him away. Eventually, South Africa was liberated of the tyrannical white rule and Trevor and his mother lived openly and freely.
“The only time I could be with my father was indoors…if we left the house, he’d have to walk across the street from us.”
Born a Crime is comprised of eighteen personal essay chapters, each prefaced by a short piece explaining an element of the apartheid in South Africa. Most of the chapters focus on Trevor’s relationship with his mother, who is smart, bold, brash and did the best job she could raising him and keeping him safe from harm.
“We waited and waited for a minibus to come by. Under apartheid the government provided no public transportation for blacks, but white people still needed us to show up to mop their floors and clean their bathrooms.”
Trevor’s memoir is compelling and inspiring but also comical and entertaining. He reflects on his caterpillar dinners and that time he was thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping. He also spent a week in jail because he didn’t want his mother to know what he’d done. Trevor had a lively childhood and many chapters will make the reader laugh. By high school, he had become entrepreneurial, copying and selling pirated CDs to classmates and also standing in line at the cafeteria and to make a profit from students’ orders.
There is also a darkness to Born a Crime. When he was an adolescent, his mother married an auto mechanic Abel, whose Tsonga name Ngisaveni translates to ‘Be Afraid’. At times, he is caring and compassionate, but other times he is highly controlling and violent. Trevor and his mother became the victims of domestic violence and no matter how hard Trevor tried to convince his mother to leave, she always came back, fearful of what Abel would do to the family. Additionally, every time she went to the police with her complaints, the police would laugh it off as silly marriage issues and wouldn’t charge Abel.
In the end, Abel shot Trevor’s mother in the back of the head in a fit of rage. She survived, miraculously, but Abel was not charged. Even though Abel and Trevor’s mother are now divorced, even now after all these years he lives a few streets away from her. Born a Crime is as much a story about Trevor’s mother as it is about Trevor. She’s a courageous, resilient woman who worked hard to give Trevor the life that he deserved and to give him the skills to succeed in life.
I really enjoyed reading Born a Crime. It’s well-written and reflective, but also fast-paced and heartbreaking. It not only tells the story of Trevor’s childhood, but it highlights his mother and her role in his life. The book exposes the absurd and damaging apartheid and the historical significance of its liberation. Born a Crime was a great read and I have a whole new level of respect for Trevor (and his mum!) after having read the memoir.
Thank you to Hachette for sending me a review copy of this title in exchange for an honest review.