Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood
Trevor Noah's memoir begins with the text of South Africa's 1927 Immorality Act: "To prohibit illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives and other acts in relation thereto." This frames Trevor's life: born to a black Xhosa mother and a white German-Swiss father, he was quite literally born a crime. But Trevor does not dwell in the horrors; he tells (writes) stories full of joy, humor, and perseverance. He deals bluntly with colonialism, apartheid, his mother's devoutness, and everything in-between.
The book's description sums up the core of what the collection gets at (although I wouldn't really call it a "story collection," it was more a memoir): "The stories collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty."
What was so powerful about the memoir was that Trevor's voice came through strongly on the page. I could hear his voice telling me his tale. He writes about neither fitting in with the black kids nor the white kids, so he became a "chameleon." Trevor is a polygot: he speaks English, Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Afrikaans, some German and some Spanish. This allowed him to fit into various communities. Long passage (listen to him read it on NPR's Fresh Air):
Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world. We were in a shop once, and the shopkeeper right in front of us turned to a security guard and he said it in Afrikaans (speaking Afrikaans) - follow those blacks in case they steal something. My mother turned around and said in beautiful fluent Afrikaans (speaking Afrikaans) - why don't you follow these blacks so you can help them find what they're looking for? (Speaking Afrikaans) the man said, apologizing in Afrikaans. Then - and this was the funny thing - he didn't apologize for being racist. He merely apologized for aiming his racism at us. Oh, I'm so sorry, he said, I thought you were like the other blacks. You know how they love to steal. I learned to use language like my mother did.
I would simulcast, give you the program in your own tongue. I get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. Where are you from? They'd ask. I'd reply in whatever language they'd addressed me in using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion and then the suspicious look would disappear. Oh, OK. I thought you were a stranger. We're good then. It became a tool that served me my whole life. One day as a young man, I was walking down the streets and a group of Zulu guys was walking behind me closing in on me, and I could hear them talking to one another about how they were going to mug me. (Speaking Zulu). Let's get this white guy. You go to his left, and I'll come up behind him. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't run, so I just spun around real quick and said (speaking Zulu). Yo, guys, why don't we just mug someone together? I'm ready. Let's do it. They looked shocked for a moment, and then they started laughing. Oh, sorry, dude. We thought you were something else. We weren't trying to take anything from you. We were trying to steal from white people. Have a good day, man.
They were ready to do to me violent harm until they felt that we were part of the same tribe, and then we were cool. That and so many other smaller incidents in my life made me realize that language even more than color defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn't change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn't look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.
He doesn't address his career as the Daily Show host, or his rise to fame in South Africa, but tells the stories of how he became who he is today. Well worth your time. Rating: ★★★★★