Book review: Born a Crime (Stories From a South African Childhood)

Author: Trevor Noah

Date of Publication: 15 November 2016
Genre: Autobiography, Social commentary
Legacy:  This is the first book by the author who is a renowned comedian and TV host
Intended Age Group: Any
“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.”
This thought embodies the book. I read this one because it was recommended by a very socially aware friend – I usually steer clear of biographies. And I must say I am grateful to her for encouraging me to read it!
This book tells the bitter-sweet coming-of-age story of Trevor Noah, the son of a black South African mother and a white German/Swiss father. This pairing made him a “colored” boy – of mixed race, which was a whole different street to navigate when it came to the already jumbled and messed up labyrinth of different races and ethnic groups during the African apartheid and thereafter. Not to mention, it was also “illegal” to be of mixed race, hence the title of the book. Noah writes about his childhood experiences of social/racial/domestic/systemic abuse and prejudice and how he sometimes overcame it and sometimes ‘ran with it’ – pun totally intended (read the book to know more!). To be honest, it was eye-opening for me. It never ceases to amaze me how different and yet how similar all cultures are, and how our circumstances pretty much rule us.
To help us understand the African societal structure and constructs, Noah gives us a bit of history in every chapter – it’s a great dose of history! It’s much different from the textbook history we learn without empathy in schools. It’s human nature to dismiss any suffering except our own, and Noah strikingly demonstrates that with the help of various instances including the ‘Hitler’ incident -I won’t narrate it here to avoid spoilers, but that incident, and that whole idea, really made me stop and think. As kids in India, my friends and I also used the name of Hitler flippantly: you know, labeling anyone who was assertive or steadfast as Hitler, greeting each other with a “Hail” just to show comradeship, and even arguing the merits and demerits of dictatorship. We knew about the atrocities committed by Hitler, of course, it was taught in schools; and yet, it was just a story to us. And it was the same for Noah and his fellow Africans, who were themselves the victims of slavery and genocide, and yet, couldn’t empathize with victims of the holocaust.
Trevor Noah is amazingly gifted at observing people and the world. He introduces a world that is so different from the world we ‘imagine’ – because our imagination, as the introductory quote here states, is pretty stunted at best. When we think of Africa and apartheid, we think of injustice; but we hardly ever scale the depths of the destruction of human rights and worse, spirits.  There are so many things we take for granted and the success of this book is that it hits us hard about our complacency.
While Noah excels in deep understanding and insight, he lacks in fluid writing (I do think that he is a wonderful comic, but that’s immaterial here). Also, non-linear narrative is great when you are working a mystery, but in a biography – especially one which has so many ‘hues’ – no pun intended, it just tends to confuse the reader. In fact, the back and forth narrative and the long descriptions of his childhood routines is what made me take off a star. But despite that, the book is worth reading for everyone who is the least bit interested in cultures, society, and humanity.
Read this book, people! We often resign to the fact that history is written by victors, but that’s just because the vanquished and the survivors choose to or are forced to stay mum. Not anymore. It’s high time we start listening to their voices – especially when they are as insightful as Trevor Noah’s.
Rating: 4 on 5

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