Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Two years ago, my mother gave me a Kindle, thinking it would help with my book obsession. While I haven’t slowed down with procuring physical books, I have added audiobooks to my world. After listening to my first audiobook, The History of Spain: Land on a Crossroad, I decided to dive into one of the memoirs I’d been coveting: Trevor Noah’s 2016 memoir, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Trevor himself narrates the audiobook version of Born a Crime.

I’ve only read a few other books – all novels – set in Africa. And out of them, only one, The Apartment, was set in South Africa. All the others took place in different countries around the continent: Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco, and the northernmost countries bordering the Mediterranean. This is also only the third memoir I’ve read, in some ways comparable to American Chica, about a Peruvian American girl growing up in two disparate cultures in the 1950s.

Most people know Trevor Noah as the host of The Daily Show and for his work as a comedian. But before his rise to fame around the world, he grew up poor and literally illegal. Born a Crime takes us through his childhood, showing us the funny times, the horrible times, and everything in between. Through it all, we get to know not only Trevor, but also his family, his country, and the culture of his home.

Trevor’s story is at once relatable and stunning. Many of his childhood antics feel like things we or people we know could have done. Members of his family feel real not just because of how well Trevor portrays them, but because we see bits of our own relatives in them.

But Born a Crime also delves into deeper subjects surrounding racism, domestic abuse, poverty, and governmental issues. Trevor was born during the era of apartheid in South Africa, a system of institutionalized racial segregation that made his very existence illegal – hence the name of this book. Trevor’s mother was black, but his father was white, which led Trevor to be classified as “colored” or mixed race. This forced him to stay inside, hiding away from police, until apartheid finally ended.

The way Trevor talks about race and racism is shocking and spot-on. He describes how illogical it is, citing examples of how, in South Africa, Chinese people were considered black, yet Japanese people were considered white. Moreover, people could apply to have their race – as designated by the government – changed to something with more freedom. Racism is a stain on humanity, and Trevor offers some examples of how wrong it is.

Born a Crime dives into Trevor’s own history with crime and what’s considered right or wrong. One powerful chapter is on his time spent hustling, and how theft, for example, could be waved away as okay if you have a certain mentality or basic needs that aren’t being met. It’s thought-provoking and applicable to any culture.

One of the major themes weaving through Trevor’s memoir is of the domestic abuse he and his mother suffered. His mom, Patricia, married a man named Abel when Trevor was still young. While Abel seemed like a friendly and good man, he hid demons that usually came out when he drank. Despite Patricia’s calls to the police, the broken justice system kept Abel from ever getting charged; he went free, and the abuse continued.

It’s a painful subject, but an important one, and Trevor tackles it authentically, offering up the differing perspectives of and reactions to domestic violence, why it is allowed to continue, and how difficult it is to escape.

Born a Crime is an incredible book, and Trevor Noah’s audiobook version is particularly engrossing. Whether or not you know him or are a fan of his, this memoir is illuminating, captivating, and universal. It will feel all too familiar, and yet open you up to a new world and ideas. You’ll learn, you’ll feel the full spectrum of emotions, and you’ll walk away enlightened.

Get the book soon, because Born a Crime is being adapted into a film! Lupita Nyong’o will portray Trevor’s mom, Patricia, and Trevor Noah himself is producing the film through his Ark Angel Productions. Read (or listen to) the book, and get ready to watch the film soon.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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