Audible and Goodreads gave away free copies of Born a Crime a few weeks ago and I jumped at the chance to download a book that was already on my TBR list. This is one of the best celebrity memoirs I’ve ever read because it is not really a celebrity memoir; besides a few throwaway lines about his introduction into touring comedy Noah doesn’t talk about his career. This is a story about growing up as a mixed child with his black Xhosa mother in South Africa in the later days of apartheid and after its dissolution.
Patricia Noah met Trevor’s Swiss-German dad, Robert, after she left her family home and moved into the city (despite black people not being allowed to live in the city) to be a secretary. She propositioned Robert into having a child with her, she didn’t want any financial or even emotional support, and he eventually relented. Despite his initial reservations he did become part of Trevor’s life although they could never walk together down the street. It was against the law for blacks and whites to have sex so having a mixed child was just proof they had committed a crime. Trevor’s father isn’t listed on his birth certificate and his tribe of origin is also a lie.
“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.”
Trevor and his mother were very poor but his mother was very religious, smart and resourceful. Trevor was a trouble maker but he inherited a lot of his mother’s intelligence and craftiness. His explanations about cultural identity as well as the importance of language as a unifier really elevated this beyond just another memoir about growing up poor. It’s also pretty funny; the story about his dance crew going to a Jewish school had me crying in my car I was laughing so hard.
“Nelson Mandela once 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.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”
While several stories will have you laughing out loud it is also a heartbreaking story at times. Trevor’s family was so poor after his stepfather ran his business in the ground that they ate caterpillars for dinner every night for a month. His step father was also a volatile drunk who was abusive to Patricia and caused Trevor to lose contact with his biological father.
My biggest (really only) complaint would be how much Noah repeats himself. Each section follows a theme and his timeline bounces around a bit while he gives examples; because of this he introduces friends and family members a couple times or repeats brief anecdotes which gets a little old.