Deftly woven and wittily presented Born A Crime is a cathartic narrative of the complexity of a fractured post-apartheid South Africa
An “autobiographical comedy” is how Trevor Noah’s memoir Born A Crime is often described. But, as everyone’s current favourite satirical funny man, Noah does here too what he does best. Drollery as a façade for dark witticisms. A laugh-out-loud hardcover made up of pages laced with a grim life story not really meant to be taken lightly.
The title is literal in every sense of the phrase: Noah was born to a Swiss father and a Xhosa mother in an apartheid-governed South Africa when such “alliances” were punishable by law. As a result, Noah would be officiated as “coloured”. The proverbial stamp would haunt him as “the anomaly wherever we lived” he writes. “In Hillbrow, we lived in a white area, and nobody looked like me. In Soweto, we lived in a black area, and nobody looked like me. Eden Park was a coloured area, everyone looked like me, but we couldn’t have been more different.”
As a result, Noah learned to be a “chameleon”, over the years building up fluency in English, Afrikaans, and four other native tongues. He would perceptively observe: “Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says, ‘we’re the same.’ A language barrier says, ‘we’re different.’ The architects of apartheid knew this.”
Noah was only nine years old when Mandela was freed, and he recollects matter-of-factly how before then, “I could only see my father where apartheid allowed,” which was mostly indoors and not out in public. One would then expect a less bleaker account of a ‘liberated’ South Africa, but Noah offers us both; his own astute interpretations of memories from a police-state childhood, along with observations of post-apartheid repercussions of the war Africa “waged with its own self”.
“The difference between British racism and Afrikaner racism was that at least the British gave the natives something to aspire to,” he says in the book. “If they learned to speak correct English and dress in proper clothes, if they could Anglicise and civilise themselves, one day they might be welcome in society. The Afrikaners never gave us that option. British racism said ‘If the monkey can walk like a man and talk like a man, then perhaps he is a man.’ Afrikaner racism said, ‘Why give a book to a monkey?’”
There are most certainly hilarious accounts of his childhood (and young adulthood) shenanigans included – you can almost picture Noah having an entire audience at one of his stand-up shows in fits. But woven in between the comedy are personal insights into years of self-fostered intuitiveness that almost pale in comparison to the snippets of perception we see on The Daily Show.
“The thing Africans don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation,” he reflects in one of the longer passages. “The Nazis took meticulous records, took pictures, made films. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. Six million people killed. We can all look at that number and be rightly horrified. But when you read through the atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess.”
Many who rushed for the shelves as soon as Born A Crime was released late last year most likely anticipated a slapstick narrative. What they didn’t expect as they closed the other end of the hard cover was to be wondering how a social pariah, an ex-“hustler” and a witness (and recipient) to an abusive stepfather, could possibly get even near the standing he has today.
The answer, however, is in the dedication and final lines of this journal. “For bringing me into this world and making me the man I am today, I owe the greatest debt, a debt I can never repay, to my mother.” For above all, this story is a heartbreakingly heartening ode to his mother – a fiercely devout woman, a single parent stubbornly unconcerned about societal norms, a firm believer in “tough love” and a person who can even find humour in being shot in the face.
“Learn from your past and be better because of your past. But don’t cry because of your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.” And as the reader moves along this album of words, he/she comes to realise that for all the acerbity Noah carries about South Africa and its governance, his retrospection with regards to his personal upbringing are unresentful – they are the bobs from the bits that he recollects fondly and comically.
In every tribute he makes to his mother, one can even come to the conclusion that this book is autographed for all women, really. The strength in us that is wasted on just carrying pickets, and not, well, doing. The God-given grit we innately possess that has us smiling and marching on in the face of disappointment after disappointment. The voices we are granted, not just for loudspeakers at marches, but to teach a generation we wholly intend to be better than ours.
Noah clearly has an incredible story to tell, and all those who have turned these leaves are glad that he did. This page-turner will have you laughing, have your heart racing, and even most unexpectedly, have you watering your eyes in acknowledgement of the love with which it has been written.
Image from TIME
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