KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 30 — Comic and talk show host Trevor Noah’s memoir about growing up in South Africa was one of two books I cracked open after a weeks-long reading drought and I was glad that it’s good.
During the run-up to the 2016 US presidential elections, the host of The Daily Show, along with many others, heaped scorn on the man who, against expectations, will move into the White House in January.
Like his colleagues, Noah seemed to have a hard time digesting the outcome. “This entire result is sort of like [Donald] Trump’s hair — I know it’s real, but my mind can’t accept it.”
One can understand his apprehension over the United States’ future under Trump. After all, the post-election tensions probably reminded him of what he experienced as a kid.
Noah’s story begins with a piece of legislature from the apartheid era — the Immorality Act, 1927 — that criminalises interracial relations. Noah’s biological parents broke that law and he was Exhibit A.
He considers himself fortunate not to have been a casualty of a system that openly discriminated against non-whites, thanks to pockets of calm within his family, society and circle of friends that allowed him to come of age during the death throes of the apartheid government and the early years of freedom.
But he also had to deal with issues such as poverty, bullying and domestic violence. The heart-rending story of his mother’s own childhood and abuse at the hands of her second husband are particularly haunting.
Noah’s mom, Patricia, figures prominently here. Her own story is scattered throughout the pages. Headstrong and deeply religious, she worked and paid her own way out of the slums to give herself and young Trevor a better life.
However, young Noah was precocious, albeit smart, resourceful and filial. He got into all sorts of mischief, including shoplifting and music piracy, and got locked up for “borrowing” his stepfather’s car. Yet, here he is, making a name for himself in comedy and hosting a TV talk show in the States.
But what’s a book about a comedian without a few laughs?
At times, you feel as if he’s sitting at his desk on the set of his TV show, narrating his story. So perhaps one can be forgiven for thinking that this book was ghostwritten by a Daily Show staffer.
An anecdote that starts Chapter 3, for example, says that in South Africa, someone had been tried in court for killing people with lightning a few years ago—and attorneys are not allowed to argue that witchcraft isn’t real. “No, no, no. You’ll lose.”
There was also his mother’s fears of being poisoned by some family members. Starving, he once argued that he could pray to Jesus to detox the food they served (his mom gave him a robust religious upbringing), only to be told, “Trevor! Sun’qhela!” — something along the lines of “Don’t question me!” in the Xhosa language, which everyone should save for future use.
I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, because it’s his story, it’s his name on the cover, and it is (forgive me) unputdownable. And he wouldn’t lie to us, would he?
So much of Noah’s story is reminiscent of many childhoods, notably those coloured by issues of race, religion, gender and class — divisions that seem invisible to children but become more apparent later, no thanks in part to adults. Some will be able to relate to his situation at one point or another.
Hilarious and sometimes hair-raising hijinks take place between keen observations on and insights into family, society and government. The writing sounds natural, the voice — astute, witty and honest — comes through, bringing the author’s world and the absurdity of apartheid into relief. (Back then, the Chinese were classified as “black” and the Japanese were “white” — for real?)
As one reads on, though, the levity lifts and it starts getting bleaker, a little angry and disquieting, especially towards the end. Parts start sounding a little too confessional for comfort. One appreciates his candour, but will he get into trouble for it?
Regardless, you feel for Noah but, most of all, you feel for his mother and the sacrifices she made. In that sense, his account of his formative years is also the tale of his mother’s success in raising him and a tribute to those who helped him in life.
Thanks to them, a boy who was born a crime has grown up to be anything but.
Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Spiegel & Grau (November 2016)
* Alan Wong is an editor and book reviewer.