Book Review | Trevor Noah’s ‘Born a Crime’ is an Accidental Ode to His Remarkable Mother

We all know Trevor Noah as the South African that made it big in the US as the host of The Daily Show, capable of traversing the stormy seas of Trump’s America with meaningful reflection and hilarious satire at every step.

As might be expected, this same level of fun in the face of grave circumstance oozes from the pages of his autobiography, It’s Trevor Noah: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Telling the story of his youth as the son of a white Swiss Father and a black Xhosa mother, but the child of apartheid South Africa, Noah’s book deals with themes of race, adolescence, faith and abuse.

Mixed race children, Noah among them, often describe the difficulty of being caught between two worlds, two identities. For most though, this inner sense of tension doesn’t translate to being in real-world danger. Noah, however, was born in a time and a place where it was literally illegal for a white and black person to have a child together.

Trevor Noah
Born a Crime
Spiegel & Grau, 2019

Noah introduces readers to this apartheid reality at the very start of his narrative. “I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car,” he begins. This shocking opening line is later trumped by the revelation that Noah’s mothers took this action to save his life from men who would have otherwise killed them.

The ‘throwing out of a car’ episode occurred after a deeply religious single-mother, Patricia Noah, defiantly made young Noah go to church despite their car having broken down. “I know you love Jesus, but maybe next week you can ask him to meet us at our house. Because this really wasn’t a fun night” asks young Noah as the family finally reaches safety.

As is often the case with Noah’s anecdotes, this rocky episode ends in laughter shared between mother and son. The pair constantly spar with words; his deeply loving relationship is clearly the root of Noah’s comedic ability.

This story is characteristic of a narrative that presents Noah’s remarkable, often dangerous and difficult, childhood through the uncomplicated and accepting eyes of a child.

Noah grew up in a township and it was clear that he was different to most other people. “Nearly 1 million people lived in Soweto. 99% of them were black – and then there was me,” he writes. In apartheid South Africa, skin colour dictated so much of the kind of life one could live. Even within his close-knit family unit, Noah recounts this racial inequality.

Also read: It’s Time We Acknowledged India’s Deep-Rooted Racism

On one occasion where the comedian was playing with his cousins, he started to misbehave. What followed was a round of beatings administered by his South African grandmother. Whilst both his cousins received the full force of this punishment, Noah was simply told he was “a naughty boy.” At the time, young Noah simply believed he was the favourite grandchild, but he later understood that his grandmother had been unable to hit him because she considered him to be a white man.

Trevor’s mother, Patricia, is the book’s real hero – obviously reflecting the huge admiration Noah has for her. Patricia is presented as independent, funny, beautiful and defiant. In a moment of frequent rioting in South Africa’s township – which ultimately saw thousands die – Noah describes how his mother would “head straight out, and as we’d inch our way past the blockades, she’d give the rioters this look.” He continues, “it didn’t matter that there was a war on our doorstep. She had things to do, places to be.”

When Patricia met and married her second husband though, life gradually started to change for her and the now adolescent Trevor. The man’s name in English was Able, but “his Tsonga name was Ngisaveni. It means ‘be afraid’,” Noah recalls that this should have rung warning bells for the family.

Able quickly became controlling, at first no longer allowing the family dog into the house, then specifically not fixing Patricia’s car so she could not spend so much time out of the house at church. What Noah describes is a spiralling domestic abuse situation, that resulted in the physical abuse of both mother and son – climaxing with an attempted murder.

This candid description of alcoholism, pain and loss of personal liberty reflects a phenomenon experienced far too often by victims of abuse in our world. What shines through Noah’s remembering of that time though, is the goodness of his mother. Patricia’s capacity to maintain a stoic defiance and laugh even after having experienced this trauma is an inspiration.

The book closes with this image: “she broke out into a huge smile and started laughing. Through my tears, I started laughing too. I was bawling my eyes out and laughing hysterically at the same time. We sat there and she squeezed my hand and we cracked each other up as we always did, mother and son, laughing together.”

Born a Crime is a worthwhile read for both young and old. Constantly funny, despite the serious subject matter, understanding Noah’s life offers us all a multitude of opportunities to learn from. As we reflect with the author on issues of race, identity, family and adolescence, at every corner Noah reminds us of the restorative qualities of love and joy. And those are qualities worth remembering.

Aran Panesar is a London based student at King’s College War Studies Department specialising in South Asian security.

Featured image credit: Twitter

(The picture is of Trevor Noah with his grandmother which he posted on Twitter on the International Women’s Day)