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Book review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

At a certain point of our growing up we come to realise the brutalities of the world. Trevor Noah got a taste of them pretty early in his life, for the hugely popular comedian from South Africa was — as the title of his book says — "born a crime".

This autobiography is a captivating read, one that draws you in the moment you open it. And, despite the hint of poignancy in the title, it is actually a hilarious book. The kaleidoscopic experience of his younger life was so amusing that sometimes I feel it stretches credulity to the limit. Such was the rich tapestry of his life — an extraordinary mixture of adventure and sorrows — that it might be the envy of Chris Patten, the last Hong Kong governor who bemoans in his book about being brought up "in the sort of loving, comfortable home that should entitle a writer these days to sue for deprivation of literary royalties."

Noah's birth was a "crime" because he was born to a Swiss white father and a black mother at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in Apartheid South Africa. Very early on, Noah came to see the absurdity. He was not allowed to be seen together with either of his parents, and had to be cooped up with his grandmother in a two-bedroom home perpetually. That was compounded by his identity crisis in a country of many tribes — the mixed-race boy was taken as "white" by some and "black" by others and "coloured" sometimes.

But the young Trevor was able to navigate the complicated web of South African ethnicity with one thing — his talent for languages. A polyglot, he mingled with people from different ethnic groups by speaking different languages, fitting in with them like the bat in one of Aesop's fables.

Devoid of upward social mobility, Noah used his business flair and engaged in a lucrative (and, I must say, illegal) business — pirating music CDs with a CD writer and 56K modem in his bedroom. Aware that he could make even more money by hosting gigs on the strength of his collection of pirated music, he began hauling his equipment all over the township (in then South Africa, it was a town or part of a town that black people lived), organising gigs and performing as a DJ himself.

Then comes the most hilarious episode of the book. Noah took a dancer, named "Hitler", to a performance at a school — a Jewish one. It is not that I am insensitive to Hitler's atrocities against the Jews, but I really laughed out loud reading about the farce that ensued. In all fairness, the chapter is meaningful in that it offers a fresh point of view on the gap between different cultures.

But as entertaining as Noah's life story might have been, the book is still a bitter-sweet symphony, recording a young black man's struggles with all sorts of hardship in post-Apartheid South Africa — poverty, abuses in a patriarchal family, and, most importantly, social injustice. One example is the police. After his mother — Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah — was hit by his abusive stepfather, she went to a police station, demanding that the police investigate. It was then he realised that the cops were not the "good guys" as he had thought, as they treated the crime as nothing.

Born a Crime is as much about Patricia as about Trevor Noah indeed. Though deeply religious, Patricia is also incredibly loving, embodying nearly all the virtues of a good mother. But make no mistake — Patricia was also very strict to Trevor, not hesitating to punish him for the most minor mistake. Her rationale is that she had to punish Trevor "before the system does", a system particularly harsh to black people.

"The world doesn't love you," said Patricia to his son when he was trying to come to terms with all sorts of teething problems of a fledgling democracy. But for all its flaws, the end of Apartheid was progress, marking the birth of a new era for a people finally set free. I suspect Patricia's words might find a greater resonance in a distant city, where so many young, innocent and noble souls have tasted the cruelties of the world the hardest way possible — through tear gas and rubber bullets — their "crime" being trying to save freedom from its death throes.

An easy read?

Definitely. But be warned — the book is full of swear words. Trevor Noah has recently published a "clean" version of the book specially for young people.

Who is the author?

Trevor Noah was born in South Africa and rose to prominence as the host of The Daily Show, a late-night show on Comedy Central.

In case you don't know...

Born a Crime is to be adapted into a movie, with Lupita Nyong'o (from 12 Years a Slave) playing Patricia.

Originally published in Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, on 12 November 2019.

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