Born A Crime
By Trevor Noah
Spiegel & Grau
288 pages, $28
Trevor Noah had no right to be born.
In the waning days of apartheid in South Africa, Noah entered the world as the product of a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother when such unions were illegal. He lived life though his adolescence in a state of suspended race, neither white, nor black, sometimes the beneficiary of special privileges accorded to the former, sometimes the victim of discrimination visited upon the latter.
That is the short explanation why “The Daily Show” host’s memoir is called “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.”
Noah’s early life story, really a collection of essays, is both horrifying and hilarious. The humor that made Noah a standup comedian and the heir to the satire throne once occupied by Jon Stewart shines through in chapter after chapter, but so too does a nimble writing style that is equally apparent in stories that range from him and his mother running for their lives to his end-of-chapter explainers about his life under apartheid or how apartheid functioned.
“Apartheid was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under total control. A full compendium of those laws would run more than 3,000 pages and weigh approximately 10 pounds, but the general thrust of it should be easy enough for any American to understand,” he writes at the end of chapter 1. “In America, you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”
And that was the world in which he lived and which informed his world view, now on display at 11 p.m. nightly on Comedy Central.
Noah writes with passion and honesty about his upbringing, but without a hint of self-pity. The effect is that you find yourself reading passages that in the context of reading the book seem normal, instead of horrifying.
“Unlike America, where anyone with one drop of black blood automatically became black, in South Africa mixed people came to be classified in their own separate group, neither black nor white, but what we called ‘colored.’ ”
The members of each group were forced to register with the government and then relocated to be with members of their own kind.
Noah recounts this system matter-of-factly without the accompanying outrage it deserves because for him at the time, it was a normal way of life.
But because of his unusual status, and his knowledge of multiple languages, Noah writes that he could live in multiple worlds at the same time.
“I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast – give you the program in your own tongue.”
His status also applied to the way his own family treated him.
“There were so many perks to being ‘white’ in a black family, I can’t even front,” he says. “I was having a great time. My own family basically did what the American justice system does: I was given more lenient treatment than the black kids.”
He needed leniency: As he recounts it, he was kind of a punk, constantly getting into trouble because of the thrill of it. He joyfully retells tales of shoplifting, breaking windows just for the fun of it, and becoming a pirated CD entrepreneur.
He also is generous with tales of his failed romance attempts, devoting three chapters of the book to the title "A Young Man's Long, Awkward, Occasionally Tragic, And Frequently Humiliating Education In Affairs Of The Heart."
And of course there are many moments of humor. I would dearly love to retell the laugh-out-loud story of how he discovered that there actually is an option to using a leaky, fly-infested outhouse on a rainy day that involves putting newspaper on the floor, but discretion prevents it.
A theme that runs through the book is his powerful devotion to his fiercely independent and deeply religious mother. She did not want to be married, but wanted to have a child and despite knowing that it was illegal and that their offspring would be as well, she sought out a man to impregnate her. He resisted but eventually relented.
"For my mother's part, the fact that this man didn't particularly want a family with her, was prevented by law from forming a relationship with her, was part of the attraction," Noah writes. "She wanted a child, not a man stepping in to ruin her life."
Because his father was Swiss, Noah had a way out, like other “mixed” children whose white parent smuggled them out. But his mother would not allow it and he eventually confronted her about her decision.
“Why? Why didn’t we just leave? Why didn’t we go to Switzerland?”
“Because I am not Swiss,” she said, stubbornly as ever. “This is my country. Why should I leave?”
Noah eventually did leave, and fans of his comedy are the better for it. But thankfully for readers, he brought the story of his life with him.
Bruce Andriatch is the Assistant Managing Editor/Features for The Buffalo News