Wednesday, December 20, 2017
Trevor Noah’s BORN A CRIME: STORIES FROM A SOUTH AFRICAN CHILDHOOD
Let me start with a spoiler. (It’s okay. Keep reading.) I listened to this on audio, and I loved it.
Oh, and you should listen too. I’m a writer-type, so I love to read pretty prose on paper or even eBook, if I must. This memoir has vibrant word play—to some degree—but Noah is a performer first: an expert storyteller, great with voices. It’s the delivery that captivates. He gives different voices to each character, and my friends keep telling me which one they loved best. My favorite? His mom. She’s the star of this book.
But before we get to that, let’s look at South Africa—the other star.
There’s a way to do book reviews, and there’s a way not to do them; I think I’m about to do it the way you’re shouldn’t do them. Which is to say that I’m compelled to muse personally . . .
This book felt like coming home. I savored it. It’s always annoying when people like me lay claim to something based on minimal experience—like you’ll have that friend who ate Korean food once and suddenly becomes the expert on Asian cuisine. So, I cautiously confess my deep love of South Africa, and my own ties with it. I “lived” there for some months (in 1997 and 1998) during the post-Apartheid/Nelson Mandela flurry of adjustment, chaos, tourism, expatriate frenzy, et al. A number of life-altering events happened to me there, or as a result of that trip—including the eventual publication of my first book.
But my experience was entirely that of a white girl. I lived with Afrikaners, who generously showed people their world. And South Africa, at least back then but probably still today, was a wild landscape of cultural diversity. It’s hard to say who the “main” people are, as there are quite a few major groups. Among the peoples are the whites (Afrikaners of Dutch-descent and those of English-descent), the black people (Xhosa, Zula, and a bunch of others), and the “Coloreds” (mixed folks, like Trevor Noah who has a Xhosa mom and a Swiss dad). It’s hard for Americans to wrap their tongue around that latter terminology. Coloreds? Really? Really. And they have eleven official languages. (Noah quotes Nelson Mandela who said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Noah, impressively multilingual, draws this thematically out in his tales.) Add to this mix one of the most horrific examples of systemic racism (if not the worst), Apartheid—which was only dismantled in 1991—and one finds an unruly but vital world. But know this: it’s also one of the most beautiful places on earth, utterly ripe for stories about humanity and universality.
So Trevor Noah, a colored guy from South Africa who now hosts “The Daily Show” in the U.S. (replacing Jon Stewart!), brought me, in a smallish way, “home.” But from another point of view. He is colored. (I don’t like saying it either.) This book is subtitled “Stories from a South African Childhood,” and that’s exactly what it is. Beginning with that time his mom threw him out of a moving mini-van (I let my kids listen to this), we’re taken through his early adventures—schooling, first love, Soweto life, his pets (“[b]lack people’s dogs don’t play fetch; you don’t throw anything to a black person’s dog unless it’s food”), a wicked stepfather. We do not get to America, nor do we spend any significant time on celebrity. The book is all that I love about comedy, in that it’s humorous but poignant at the same time—not at all immune to tragedy. (He writes, “People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.”) I should say that it’s not side-splitting funny; rather, it’s good storytelling. We’re more in literary than we are in comedic terrain.
We’re made to think: “The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West. But if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson.” Food for thought.
And we laugh too: “Nearly one million people lived in Soweto. Ninety-nine point nine percent of them were black—and then there was me. I was famous in my neighborhood just because of the color of my skin. I was so unique people would give directions using me as a landmark. ‘The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.’”
But I said that his mom is the star. She is. She’s black and she’s a woman. She’s sometimes a single mom, and sometimes a rebel—as it was criminal for white and black people to have sex, let alone children. But she is always his mom. She’s calm, religious, and smart. She also lives covertly in white areas in Johannesburg during Apartheid, calls out Thief! while pursuing her own child in busy areas, and gets shot in the head by her ex. I think readers/listeners will find that they have a tremendous amount of respect for her.
I recommend this one! It is an insider’s view.