BORN A CRIME: Book Review

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I enjoyed Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood enormously. First of all, if you have watched “The Daily Show” which he took over from Jon Stewart a while ago, you’ll hear his voice in every sentence. His writing has that kind of authenticity. It bubbles over with excitement and good humor, and at the same time it’s penetrating in the accuracy of its psychological and social observation.

To have been “Born a Crime” was of course a literal truth for a bi-racial child in his native apartheid South Africa. Deprived of more than fleeting contact with a Swiss father, Noah was brought up by a fiercely loving and tenacious mother, who spared him neither the beating when she thought he deserved it, nor the often biting wisdom of her tongue. From his early years, he made fun of the Christianity to which she was devoted, but learned from her the ethical compass that saw him through even a mischievously rebellious—and at times moderately criminal youth.

Noah earned his smarts the hard way: on the back streets of Johannesburg’s black townships, where survival was a matter of learning to negotiate the constantly shifting shoals of social, racial and political turmoil. Coming of age at the moment when apartheid was finally crushed by a mix of internal and international pressures, and always an outsider—not white, not “colored,” not Indian, and never accepted as completely black—he slipped cheekily between racial barriers by guile, deception and duplicity, making sure that he always, improbably, came out ahead of the game. Well, usually. There are times he described being slapped down brutally. But he has the native ability to bounce back up every time he gets knocked down.

If Noah takes us on an often riotous journey, it’s one that is also often profoundly moving. Little short of a miracle that he survived a brutally abusive stepfather, a peripatetic education that combined the disciplined experience of Catholic school with the chaos of the streets, and his own unruly spirit that rejected every social norm, to become the sharp-witted, unsparing social critic that he is today. If you want to understand where his peculiar brand of satire comes from, this is a good place to start.

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