I do not read many celebrity memoirs, unless you include theology professors. But Born A Crime will now be ranked with Julie Andrew’s Home as the two best celebrity memoirs I have read.
Trevor Noah was born to a Black African mother in apartheid South Africa. It was illegal for any mixed race sexual relations to occur. And the very existence of Trevor was actually proof of a crime. His father was a white German ex-pat working in South Africa. His mother, the real force of the book, was going to live the life she wanted regardless of the political rule. Until the fall of apartheid, when he was about 5, Trevor could not be seen with either parent in public for fear of him saying Daddy or Mommy or someone thinking they may be connected.
The thread of the book is generally moving through time from his birth to a tragic event at the dawn of his life as comic. But it also is somewhat thematic, telling the reader about what life was like under Apartheid, and then in the early days of violence after its fall, stories about the personality of his mother, what the eduction system was like, how his ability to speak many languages impacted his ability to move in and out of different groups, how his mixed race background impacted his cultural acceptance, issues of poverty, police corruption, family abuse, etc.
There is a matter-of-factness to the stories that is important to the impact of the book. The vast majority of his readers will be white Americans. People that know almost nothing about Africa, real poverty, or police state systems like apartheid. But white Americans understand parents, some will understand abuse and alcoholism, many will have felt at one point being ostracized or the new kid at school. Without minimizing some of the horrors, Noah tells the stories, but also makes them relatable when they are and somewhat distant and instructive, when they are not.
The mix of relatable and different is summed up well in a scene between Trevor Noah and his mother toward the end of the book. A significant event had just happened and she says something similar to what is heard from many parents. She says (roughly), “You may think I don’t love you but I do. I punish you because I love you. I beat you because I don’t want someone else to beat you. I am trying to save you. When the police beat you they are trying to kill you.” The love of a parent for child, most of us experienced on one side or the other. The fear of a child being killed by police (or by his lifestyle which is clear in context) is not something that most of us relate to, but it is all there.
The story ends prior to anything but the mention of the start of his career as a comic. There is no celebrity life. Only the uniqueness of a life lived with his mother and then a life trying to move away from his mother and become independent. The rest of the story is still being written I guess. He is only 32 and the book ended about 10 years ago. I will pre-order anything else he writes.
I have a hard time recommending this to strongly. This will be on my best of 2016 book list. I listened to the audiobook (just over 8 hours) in a single day, staying up several hours past when I was planning on going to bed, just to finish it.
Goodreads has the audiobook for free (I believe through December 21st) through Audible. If you do not have an Audible account, you can use an Amazon login to collect the free audiobook and then listen to it via a smart phone, tablet or computer.