Staff Review: Born a Crime: Stories from a South-African Childhood by Trevor Noah

I first read this book about a year ago, and I am so glad that I did. Before picking up the book, I didn’t know much about Trevor Noah, only that he is the current host of The Daily Show. Regardless, I was very interested in reading this book, and I’m quite happy I read it. The title reminded me of the little I did know of Noah, something about his birth and childhood being quite dangerous, but that was all I knew at the time. Noah tells his story of growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa with his mother, younger brother, and other extended family members. This book may seem like any other celebrity memoir, but Noah has much to say and does an amazing job of saying it. This story is many things, all at the same time.

To start, this is a coming of age story that tells of Noah’s time growing up, from childhood and his teenage years into adulthood. This part of the tale contains all of the things you’d expect to read about a young boy growing up: scoldings from his mother, stories of his beloved pets, first crushes, first jobs, and of course, prom night. Noah uses his comedic skills to shine a light on the awkward phases of growing up that many of us have gone through, as well as tales of rebellion and mischievousness, such as when Noah begins his own bootleg CD business or when he steals a car from his stepfather and almost ends up in prison. The stories are endearing, even when Noah is getting up to no good. His fear of his mother’s reactions, while quite strong, doesn’t stop him from getting into trouble, and it’s entertaining for the reader to 

While he is growing up, apartheid is rampant in South Africa, and Noah does an incredible job of weaving the story of South Africa’s political landscape into the story. He uses his comedic flair to tell readers about the racism and prejudice that takes place in the country, as well as what he personally experiences. The reason his memoir is called “Born a Crime” is because, essentially, he was born a crime. Being born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother made Noah a rare person to be seen in South Africa. A union between these mixed races was, at the time, illegal and punishable by up to five years in prison. As Noah explains in his book, “In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race-mixing proves that races can mix – and in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.” (Noah 21). When young Trevor was out with his parents, they all had to stand far apart from each other so that no one would  know that these people, a white man or a black woman, were the parents of this “coloured” child. That is, of course, when Trevor was allowed to go outside. Because of who he was, it was safer for Noah to stay indoors so as not to be seen, and therefore taken away from his family.

While this may be a memoir about Noah’s life, it also reads as a love letter to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo. Patricia’s relentless spirit and determination was the reason for Trevor’s existence in the first place. Patricia does anything and everything to keep Trevor safe, including throwing him out of a moving bus for fear that the drivers would threaten his life, which is how the book begins. Noah discusses his mother’s never ending faith, telling of how she would take him to three different churches every Sunday, while most people were staying safe in their homes. Patricia’s story takes a turn when she begins a relationship with Abel, an abusive alcoholic who threatens the lives and safety of Patricia and her sons, now that Trevor’s younger brother Isaac is born. Her story is miraculous, and Trevor’s love and admiration for his mother run off the pages of this book.

If you’re in the mood for a book that is heartfelt, funny, inspiring, smart and moving all at the same time, pick up Born A Crime today!