Stand-up comedian Trevor Noah, 32, has become a household name after he took over Jon Stewart’s beloved Daily Show in Dec. 2014. He had quite the pair of shoes to fill; but it was hardly the scariest thing to happen in his life.
His forthcoming memoir, Born A Crime, details a childhood not for the faint of heart and introduces readers to the life of the funny man as an undaunted youth.
Born in South Africa to a Xhosa mother and a German-Swiss father, Trevor Noah was indeed a “crime” embodied for much of his early life. Under the Immorality Act of 1927, his very existence exposed him to the threat of being relocated to an orphanage for “coloured” (in apartheid-era South Africa, the legal designation for mixed-race) children; it also exposed his mother and extended family to the constant threat of arrest.
The beginning of the book has on its side the situational irony of trying to keep a young child indoors at all times, or trying to reconcile the nonsensical race categorizations with the family’s many moves. One such scene results in Noah’s grown, white father running away from him in a public park amidst his son’s cries of “Daddy!” – hilarious.
The book features laugh-out-loud tales that show how Noah’s upbringing inspired his humor today. One horrifyingly funny passage features a 5-year-old Noah shitting on a sheet of newspaper in his house to avoid the latrines – don’t ask. In another, Noah recounts how video footage of him shoplifting whitewashed his light skin and the authorities repeatedly ask whether he knows who the “white kid” in the video is.
Aside from the rampant humor, Noah’s respect and love for his headstrong, churchgoing mother carries the book. She shares with him a love for the unpredictable. Noah characterizes their relationship like “Tom and Jerry.” His descriptions of their escapades make their struggles feel poignant and human, rather than like simple sad poverty-porn.
They have a touching relationship at home but are headstrong and innovative in their own respective spheres. He is a young man making his way in a hustler’s economy; she is a working mother driven by faith in god and the ability to make her own way in the world.
The book’s humor is somewhat undercut by the need to constantly contextualize the framework of events of his childhood for a western audience. To be fair, Noah makes a valiant effort to span the gaps in knowledge regarding South Africa’s history, politics and cultural idiosyncrasies that many Americans are sure to have. This results in somewhat awkward, page-long inserts of history punctuated by jokey commentary. It’s hard to deploy jokey commentary about the apartheid state, but Noah does, to greater effect.
Here’s one of Noah’s punchlines on apartheid relocation.
“They’d forcibly remove people from illegally occupying some white area and drop them in the middle of nowhere with some pallets of plywood and corrugated iron,” Noah wrote. “It was like some heartless, survival-based reality TV show, only nobody won any money.”
Musings, even humorous ones, on the illogical apartheid throws into stark relief the dangerous implications of president-elect Donald Trump’s commentary on race, nationality and person-hood. In the wake of an election that throws into question whether immigrants like Noah may continue to be admitted to the U.S. (or live in peace, with rights, once they arrive), the memoir reminds us of how very much we have to lose by racist, nationalist or even neo-isolationist policy. And Noah, like so many in South Africa, already knows this firsthand.
Ultimately, Born a Crime is unremarkable in its prose style and lacks a level of introspection common among the best celebrity memoirs, like Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. It is not quite disjointed; instead, it could probably stand another 50 pages of narrative to cohere fully. But you’ll forget all this while reading it, borne along on the tide of Noah’s charismatic anecdotes and quick wit.
Born A Crime
By Trevor Noah
Spiegel & Grau, 288 pp., $28.
Release Date: Nov. 15