Book Club Review: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

June 2020 – Born a Crime:  Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

As it did with many things, Covid-19 caused a major interruption in Zion’s Book Club schedule.  Unable to meet in person and unwilling to give up the face-to-face interaction for a Zoom experience, our readers postponed discussion of our April selection until it was safer to meet outside in June.  In light of the civic unrest engulfing the country in the last two months over the need for acknowledgement, communication, and policy change concerning racial injustice, perhaps our delay was meant to be.  For the book under discussion was Born a Crime:  Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, a memoir of growing up during apartheid, a horrific program of planned racial injustice, hatred, and bigotry.  Mr. Noah is currently the host of The Daily Show, an American satirical news program.  He rose through the ranks of comedy, and that ability to laugh at life is most evident in his memoir.

Our reader who selected this book thought it would be interesting and felt there was an underdog feeling to it that appealed to her.  Other members agreed with her assessment and found the memoir to be well written and fast-paced.  Each chapter starts with notes of social and historical significance that give background context for whatever part of the author’s life is presented in that chapter.  The stark descriptions of mandated prejudice stand in striking contrast to a boy’s perspective as Noah tries to make sense of his childhood.  The union of a black woman and a white man (or vice versa) was against the law at that time in South Africa with severe penalties.  However, Trevor’s mother never let the law keep her from doing what she wanted to do.  Strong-willed, determined, and ultra-religious, his mother wanted a baby with a white man.  Whether her goal was to have something of her own to love, someone who would love her unconditionally, or to make a political statement, she found a Swiss businessman living in South Africa to father her child.  She then proceeded to hide the product of this illicit union in plain sight, being careful to truly keep him undercover by leaving him with his grandmother to play with his cousins while she worked.  She did, however, take him to church.  With a deep belief in God and a belief that Trevor needed to understand all aspects of God, they attended not one church service on Sundays, but three!  One white church, one black church, and one mixed race church, none of which were physically close, all of which had vastly different worship services, and from which Trevor accumulated a well-rounded sense of how different people viewed the Creator.  His description of trying to persuade his mother theologically that a non-starting car meant God was indicating they could actually have a day of rest was very amusing.  Of course, he lost the argument!

Between various churches and private Catholic school, the author had to learn quickly how to navigate among different segregated groups (white, colored, black) as well as economic groupings.  Trevor was a chameleon, picking up different languages and dialects in order to fit in.  He recognized early that “language, more than color, defines who you are to people.”  Our readers could remember when Hollywood stars would take elocution lessons to lose regional accents.  Even today, as people climb the corporate ladder, some find changing the way they talk to be a method of mounting another step.

Danger always lurked in the background for Trevor and his family.  His description of being tossed out of a moving car by his mother at a young age when they were being kidnapped (a commonplace under apartheid) is told with comedic overtones since she followed him, and they then set running speed records.  (Since she often chased him through the neighborhood when he was bad).  But the reality must have been traumatic.  And yet, that was everyday life, so they moved on.  The poverty in the townships where black people were forced to live was another fact of life.  Trevor’s description of certain foodstuffs and of eating caterpillars made some of our readers queasy.  However, he also gave us insight into cultural differences such as a belief among older township residents that cats were witches and therefore should be killed.  Cultural ignorance cuts both ways as he demonstrated when he had a friend named Hitler and couldn’t understand why cheering him on earned Trevor condemnation.

Dating was another area rife with pitfalls, and the author humorously recounts some of his faux pas.  His entrepreneurial spirit and interest in technology allowed him to start to move up the economic ladder as the boundaries of apartheid started to fall.  It would have been interesting to hear how the author made the jump from South Africa to the United States, but Born a Crime is only a memoir of childhood.  Its background of racial prejudice, discrimination, and abuse make it a powerful statement among current events, and its prism of comedy is an equally powerful suggestion of a way to bridge cultures and learn to communicate.  The book certainly sparked a lively discussion for Zion’s Book Club members during which we felt we achieved a greater understanding of different positions and opinions.  And in another rare meeting of the minds, all 11 members who read the book gave it 1 thumb up!  Born a Crime is timely, it is funny, it is insightful (a quote from Trevor:  “People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.”)

Now that Zion’s readers were briefly back on track (and many thanks to Luann & Matt for hosting a lovely gathering on their deck – good food, good company, good discussion), Zion’s members will have the normal summer break during July and August.  We reconvene in September to discuss Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, a book we are assured will take us two months to digest!  Happy Reading!