Trevor Noah opens his 2016 memoir, Born a Crime, with a now-defunct South African law, the Immorality Act of 1927. This act, which was written originally to “prohibit illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives,” sets up the environment in which Noah’s life unfolds. This opening makes clear that his memoir is one of identity, race, coming-of-age, and the way these ideas clashed in South Africa at the end of Apartheid.
Born a Crime is unlike any memoir I’ve read. It’s told in pieces, like a series of essays strung together with hilarious anecdotes and moments of true insight. We see Noah grow and change through the heartbreaks and triumphs we might expect of a boy traveling into adulthood as he searches for his identity. Yet, some of his stories are a bit more unusual, like when his mother threw him from a moving vehicle to escape a dangerous minibus driver, or when his street participated in an exorcism, or when he accidentally set fire to a white family’s house.
Noah’s most powerful stories are those that shed light on a particular societal ill, such as race or class. We first witness this when he describes his mother’s life before his birth. We learn the circumstances of his parents’ meeting and their illegal relationship. Noah’s father was a white Swiss-German man, his mother, a black Xhosa woman. This caused conflicts for Noah from the very beginning, as described in one of his most memorable lines: “The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations – I was born a crime.” This shaped his identity and perspective in ways Noah didn’t realize until much later.
I couldn’t have found this book at a better time in my life. I can totally relate to these types of conflicts and search for identity. It’s definitely part of why I find this book so engrossing. I can see parallels to my struggles with identity. I marvel with Noah at the intricacies of identification and social categorization, and empathize when he is shunned.
As the host of “The Daily Show,” Trevor Noah is engaging and real; his narrative voice makes this book captivating. He has a knack for storytelling, writing as if he were telling you these stories at a party, face to face. He knows how to flesh out characters and weave them into his narrative, just as they were woven into the fabric of his everyday reality. Each character – whether his strong and resilient mother, his old-fashioned and superstitious grandmother, or a host of slacking but resourceful friends – is beautifully crafted. He even does a good job of describing himself, often using his mother as a comparison of personality. (He has said on several occasions this story is more a letter to his mother, in thanks for how much she gave up for him.)
This is definitely a book I’d recommend. It manages to speak both broadly and specifically, taking form as a simply written yet captivating account of life under Apartheid and after. However, it never attempts to speak definitively about these topics. It instead tells one man’s stories, dissects them, and looks at them years later with new perspective. It does well to leave some questions unanswered, opening up the opportunity for discussion and reflection. I suggest you pick up this book. It’s certainly worth your time.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.