Saturday, January 21, 2017

Born a Crime: Harrowing Hilarity

I did not expect Born a Crime to upset me. A collection of stories by comedian Trevor Noah about his childhood and upbringing in South Africa during apartheid, I thought it would be insightful, wise, and funny. After all, I've heard him speak about his childhood on the Daily Show or during a stand-up routine - apartheid is not a funny topic but he's the man to make it so. And don't mistake me, Born a Crime is very funny, mocking all the weird rules and regulations Noah grew up with and the various loopholes he and his mother found to exploit the system. However, it also deals with abject poverty, brutal violence and abuse, and the singular danger of being a "mixed" kid when your very existence is proof of a criminal act. Noah tries to play it for laughs, but when you get to the final story, you're more likely to be in tears.

The book is divided into three parts, roughly chronicling Noah's early childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. And lest you think this book is focused solely on him, his mother is probably the more compelling character. Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah features in nearly every story, a single mother who raised Trevor with so much love and fierce bravery that it makes your heart ache. Did she beat him a lot? Sure. But if asked why, she would say, "If I don't punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn't love you...When I beat you, I'm trying to save you. When they beat you, they're trying to kill you." That kind of sobering sentiment is reflected throughout this book. There are plenty of lighthearted moments, but the threat of actual danger from the police, fellow citizens, or an abusive stepfather is always lurking on the periphery.

Trevor Noah is a masterful storyteller and I have never felt more steeped in someone's life as I was while reading these stories. When he describes his family, his school, and his various escapades as an energetic and perpetually naughty child, you are swept into his world, captivated by the vivid language (English or snippets of the other eleven official South African languages) that conveys the tastes, smells, sights, and sounds of his childhood. And while the world he is describing is so alien to my own, the story titled "Chameleon" made me instantly empathize with Noah and go, "that's my story too!" He discusses how as a "mixed" child (his father was a white Swiss-German, his mother a black Xhosa South African), he didn't know which group he belonged to amidst all the segregation. He discovered language was the key - his mother had ensured English was his first language, but he also picked up various African languages from her and his family, thereby ensuring he could fit in with the various "tribes" among the black group, but also get along with the white and colored groups. In his words, "I became a chameleon. My color didn't change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn't look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you." This felt like a description of my life and how my accent will change depending on who I'm talking to, because as a young child who moved around, this made other kids less likely to treat me like an outsider. I may not be mixed, but I certainly understand that need to be a chameleon.

Born a Crime is a truly excellent book and I urge everyone to read it. Part memoir and part history lesson, it describes a harrowing world that still managed to produce a hilarious comedian. Noah and his mother's life stories are extraordinary and he relates them matter-of-factly with no regrets and the benefit of hindsight. In one story, when discussing poverty and privilege, he mentions, "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 is what you get from reading this book. A funny story with spectacular insight into how the world works and what we need to do to improve the status quo.

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