Trevor Noah's book 'Born a Crime'- My review
A few weeks ago, I picked Sweetness from school. 'You okay?' I asked. She nodded in that silent uninterested way that twelve year olds seem to excel at. 'How did the test go?' I continued. After getting tired of only getting monosyllabic responses from her, I had looked for help in a Podcast in which it was suggested that one should always ask kids open questions.
'Ok!' She responded totally unimpressed with my open question.
I stared helplessly and resorted to the only thing I know: talk about myself. I told her about a friend who I just found out wears a Fitbit step tracker exactly like mine. She claimed to average between 10000 steps and 15000 steps per day.
‘There is just no way that could be true!’ I exclaimed. On the very rare days when I managed 10,000 steps, I would take screenshots and WhatsApp them to everyone.
She smiled absently.
And then I told her about my cousin Nekesa’s bicycle that broke down in the middle of nowhere on her way from the posho mill somewhere in Eastern Uganda. It had rained cats and dogs and now everything was wet.
From the corner of my eye, I could see her face contorting into a familiar expression of bewilderment and disbelief. What’s the relationship between the two stories? Her face seemed to be asking.
Trevor Noah’s book ‘Born a Crime’ is a collection of stories from his childhood in South Africa. They are related but they are told randomly. There is a lot of beauty in the chaos that ensue but if you are anything like Sweetness, then you will probably pull your hairs at the utter randomness of the stories. If your life’s calling is to read a book that has clearly defined parts, then avoid this book lest you be pushed to the brink.
If you have ever watched or listened to Trevor Noah, you will hear and feel his voice when reading this book. Writing is difficult but what is even more difficult is writing in an authentic voice. We were on a trip to Berlin when I started reading the book. Every morning after breakfast, we would sit down and haggle about how to spend our very limited time in Berlin. In between, I would read excerpts of the story aloud. Every time, the three of them would burst out laughing. And every time, they would all proclaim how exactly like Trevor Noah I sounded. Of course my voice is nothing like Trevor Noah’s. Neither do I possess Trevor’s cheeky giggle. And yet I somehow managed to sound exactly like him. One of the most memorable illustrations of this voice is when the granny and basically the whole neighborhood asks Trevor to pray because they are terrified that they have been bewitched and there is a demon in the house. Apparently, God always listens and responds to Trevor’s prayers because they are said in English. Of course none of them know that the supposed evidence of the demon’s visit is Trevor’s shit. Trevor goes on to say a prayer that is as hilarious as it is ridiculous. If you love wild and crazy stories, you will absolutely love this book.
Trevor Noah and the issue of race
As a mum of two mixed race kids, I was particularly curious about Trevor Noah’s experience with race. Mixed race people I think are always on the crossfire when it comes to race. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Growing up, I never had to discuss people’s skin color or hair texture. But with mixed race kids, this is a luxury I can not afford. And so we talk about why Lil man’s hair is too soft to achieve Kevin Durant’s hairstyle and why Sweetness hair is not straight like the Caucasian kids in her class. It is a talk that can be as nerve-racking as it can be enlightening. Does getting frustrated with her sometimes unruly hair mean that she is not happy with her black side?
Trevor Noah has no illusions about race.
In a lot of ways, he reminded me of Barack Obama. Reading Obama’s books, I had the feeling that he is a totally unpretentious person. He doesn't try to be what he is not .This is the same feeling I got while reading Trevor Noah's book. He is at peace with the black as he is at ease with the white in him. I remember Obama writing about mixed race people who only pay lip service to their blackness. In reality they would rather be white. Trevor Noah has his own share of experience in this area. He feels at ease with the blacks and sometimes with the whites. He calls himself black and speaks several African languages which apparently makes him a ‘bushman’ in the eyes of the coloreds. Coloreds consider 'Bushman' to be the worst insult possible because it implies that they have something to do with black people. He doesn’t hide his unease with this group of people who ironically look the most like him.
As a mum to biracial kids, I was particularly saddened by this. In a world where one is reminded every day like apartheid South Africa how disadvantaged one is as a black person, I can see how mixed race people would have a warped up sense of race.
There are two kinds of people in life: those who acknowledge their privileges and those who don’t. I have learnt that the former tend to be compassionate empathetic people. They don’t feel entitled. They know that however bad their situation is, there is always someone in a worse situation. They don’t take themselves too seriously and can laugh about themselves because they somehow see the big picture. They look at those who are different from them with curiosity and wonder. Trevor Noah is firmly in this group. When his grandma spanks his cousins but doesn’t spank him despite knowing that he is the guilty one because she doesn’t know how to spank a ‘white’ kid, he sees it for what it is: privilege. This self-awareness and the ability to call things exactly what he thinks they are, makes for a compelling read. He is as much a spectator as he is a protagonist.
I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed reading this book. There are many things to laugh about in it. There are equally many heartbreaking and infuriating parts in his story. I am glad and thankful that he shared his story. I believe that talking about difficult topics be it racism, tribalism, domestic violence and many others keeps the conversation alive and contributes to progress. Trevor Noah is definitely doing his part.