Before becoming the host of The Daily Show last year Trevor Noah was a seriously hard-working stand-up comedian. He once spoke about his habit of doing shows in both London and New York on the same weekend. This tireless approach to his craft is undoubtedly responsible for his ability to tell a story. That his anecdotes are rich and rewarding and hilarious, that his insights into human nature are penetrating, comes as no surprise in the context.
But, it’s my experience that a book of anecdotes, no matter how well told, or how funny, will only ever be remembered for the better jokes and asides. With Born a Crime, on the other hand, there’s a gestalt that separates it from others of its kind. To a great extent this comes from Noah’s experience being ostracised under the apartheid regime in South Africa. As the title suggests, Noah’s very birth was considered an infraction of the law. Sexual relations between people of different races were punishable by five years in prison at that time, and Trevor was thus walking evidence in any proceeding the state might take against his parents. Racial distinctions were bureaucratically kept, vigilantly policed, and violently maintained. But this says nothing about how these distinctions were embodied and normalized in society, or how it felt to be labelled a certain way, and thus limited. It takes a personal narrative to begin to understand the difficulty involved therein.
So, while Trevor’s mother was designated black and his father designated white Trevor was labelled ‘colored’ on his birth certificate, a distinct racial group. This nomenclature ruled his life. The questions of where he was allowed to live and with whom (i.e. not, legally speaking, his parents), what schools he was allowed to attend, and a multitude of others, were legal questions, not social or financial ones.
With Born a Crime, on the other hand, there’s a gestalt that separates the book from others of its kind.
The criminality of Trevor’s existence meant that he made for an unusual presence in Johannesburg, in the townships around the city, and in each school he attended (and there were quite a few of those). Too, it made for an unusual and heartrending family dynamic. A sad ritual was undergone for any family outing to the park. Noah’s father, on the few times he accompanied his son, found it prudent to walk on the opposite side of the street, so as not to be recognised as the boy’s father. His mother, who raised him, would chance holding his hand at times, only to make him feel “like a bag of weed,” as she would drop him at any sign of the police. Mind, in many ways Trevor’s mother is the hero of this book. She learned to type at a time when even secretarial work was legally barred to black people. And she raised her child neither in ignorance nor in fear of the regime, but in tacit disobedience, as if implying that she would not be reduced to the level that the government was trying to reduce her to, nor would she allow her son to be.
But, the unusual figure that was and is Trevor Noah was thus provided the outsider’s view. There was a distance between him and each of those around him. And this perspective not only informed his comedy for the better, it informed his compassion and his ability to identify with others despite striving for so long to find a stable identity of his own.
While it is never explicitly stated, it is my belief that the gestalt of this book amounts to this: to some extent, at least, Trevor is a synecdoche of a country perennially coming to terms with its past. His presence on a stage in front of an audience bothers and embarrasses some people, his existence demanding they confront what was until all too recently not only a crime, but a social taboo, a perversity. But, his popularity (the DVD sales of his first stand-up show easily broke all previous sales records) suggests that the population of South Africa is indeed coming to terms with the legacy of apartheid, if only slowly and sometimes tumultuously.
This book, then, is an extension of that notion, though it may be so only subconsciously. It is in turns hilarious and heartrending, but it amounts to something so very powerful.
And I have to say this: it seems a little cruel that after overcoming the odds against him to earn a platform from which to (in some small way) help a country reconcile its difficult relationship with race Noah’s success in America (e.g. his promotion to star of The Daily Show) seems to suggest he will have to do the very same thing for the next four years. It is one of few things that give me hope that our cousins to the south haven’t completely lost their way.
Rupert is a fan of fabulation in the fiction he reads. He mostly reads classics, but also enjoys science-fiction, and a good adventure story. On the non-fiction side he enjoys books on politics, language, and English history.