What a wonderful book.
‘Born a Crime’ has been my commute companion last year. I can explain you like this: I liked this book so much that I was looking forward to my 35 min train ride to work, every day. One time I forgot it at home and when I realized that, I wanted to cry.
This 285 pages long adventure takes you to the streets of South Africa in the 80s, where blacks and whites had completely separate lives under the Apartheid. Having a white, Swiss father and Black South African mother, Noah’s job was extra difficult since he was perceived ‘too white’ for blacks and ‘too black’ for whites to be accepted in their circles. Although he identifies himself with black community the most, he said he would still draw too much attention sometimes among them. This is why his grandmother would never let him play outside for years. This was a different book than the ones I reviewed before. It was an emotional roller coaster.
Noah starts the book by creating the scene of 80s South Africa and explains what Apartheid is, which is actually pretty difficult to understand if you never grew up in it, but he is successful at explaining in his pre-chapter sections. Which I call ‘Apartheid for Dummies.’ He talks about his childhood, how he learned 6 languages by himself, his love for his puppies, and how naughty he was the whole time. His childhood memories will make you giggle, even laugh loud sometimes, I can guarantee that. But then in the middle of that laugh, he says something like ‘And that’s when my mom and I jumped off of a moving minibus to save our lives…’ Then you freeze, feeling completely perplexed. “Wait… What???”
One of his funniest memories that I remember and found interesting was about him an his grandmother. One day while he is playing doctor at home with his cousins, Noah sticks a cotton ear swab into her cousin’s ear and punctures her ear drum. Blood starts to come out and everyone freaks out. She starts crying like crazy, holding her ear. Trevor thinks he is so much in trouble. His grandma rushes into the room and after seeing what happened, she spanks his cousins, but she doesn’t even touch him! Trevor feels invisible and enjoys this privilege although he doesn’t have a clue why. The very same day, when Trevor’s mom comes from work, she finds her mother crying in the kitchen. She asks what happened. Her mom says,” This boy of yours, is so so naughty. I haven’t seen anything like it. He is killing me!” Then Trevor’s mom answers, “Well, hit him, if that’s how he is going to learn!” His grandmother’s answer is mind-blowing:
“I can’t beat a white child. When you hit a black kid, they stay black. I’m used to it. When you hit a white child, they turn red, pink, purple, green, yellow, I don’t know anything about that, what if I kill him? No, I won’t hit him.”
Towards the middle of the book, Noah shares more about his teen years. His struggles with his identity, his prom date and such. Then we learn how in a poor upbringing, he found so many clever ways to make money. He mentions a few of his friends a lot throughout the book and Bongani who-knows-it-all is one of them. Then you will meet a showman named, actually named, Hitler. The stories including Hitler in this book will make you laugh – and yes, Trevor Noah will explain why the hell this guy was named after Hitler.
Trevor Noah describes this book as a ‘Love Letter to his mom’, Patricia Noah, who grew up in Soweto, South Africa. His love and admiration to her is clearly there in every chapter. Even in the moments that he doesn’t understand her, he still respects her. For instance, as a true believer, explains Noah, his mom used to take him to three different churches every Sunday: to the black church, to the white church and to the mixed church. They would come home late at night, exhausted. Whenever Trevor tried to explain that probably Jesus would be still happy if we pray from home, that was a no-no for his mom: Even if their car breaks down, even if they get kidnapped, they will still go to church. So, this “She does whatever she sets her mind to” personality of her and her perseverance were what Noah found most admirable in her. “We were a team, my mom and I” he says. How sweet is that? You can see his mother’s photos below.
Well….The final chapters of "Born a Crime" are where it gets dark. Once again, you face the ugliness of domestic violence and what it can do to families. Patricia’s husband (She was never married to Trevor’s dad), Abel, is a typical abuser: Seems very nice, funny, smart and kind from outside but very controlling in the house, violent and alcoholic towards his wife and children. Yes, I said children! Trevor has two younger half brothers, sharing the same mother: Isaac and Andrew. How can I explain?… Hmm… I don’t want to give you the details but when you first learn about the abuse, a knife slowly pokes through your heart. As you move along the pages, it penetrates deeper and deeper . In the final chapter, the knife turns, making tears build up in your eyes. I think hearing about these abusive childhood from a child’s point of view was eye opening for me. I related to that myself a lot. Something he said struck me because it shows how confusing it must be for a child to live in a house like that: Trevor says Abel used to drink so much that he would forget where the bathroom is and he would come and pee in Trevor’s room. He would be so drunk that Trevor’s screams wouldn’t make much difference in the outcome.
As you can see in some of the photos below, Apartheid was really bad and it needed to go away. But in his book, Noah also mentions about the struggles of post Apartheid era after Nelson Mandela brought an end to it. Things were complicated. Especially for the mixed ones: where would they stand now? Where would they live? Was the inequality really gone? Or was it only on the surface?
One thing I found interesting was that he didn’t talk about how he got successful or famous in the book, AT ALL. I believe he purposefully avoided that as he wanted to keep his mother and the Apartheid in the center of his story, rather than making it all about himself. Honestly, I really respected him for that.
Books like this makes a difference in my world, because I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to see South Africa and the Apartheid era in the 80s through a smart, creative and ambitious child’s eyes. Like what Mason Cooley says:
“Reading gives us some place to go when we have to stay where we are…”