InQuire's Favourite Books of the Decade - Born a Crime (2016)

By Dakarai Jane Bonyongwe

The 2nd entry in a new series, spotlighting the University of Kent students’ favourite books of the 2010s.

Deliberate, thought provoking, with a flair of humour that is characteristic of the comic, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime is a must read book of the decade. While it has comical tones that make for a light read, the issues Noah shares about his life growing up in apartheid South Africa are sobering. We’ve all read, or at least heard of, dystopian novels where the existence of a certain individual is illegal due to their traits and characteristics. In this case, what should have been fictional is very much the reality and Trevor’s life is, quite literally, a crime. Born to a Xhosa woman and a Swiss – German father, he finds himself navigating what it means to be ‘colored’ in a society very much defined by race. Being the son of colored parents would have at least placed him in a definable group, but his ethnicity was of a unique case. He could not even walk comfortably with both his parents in public without the threat of their being arrested.

Published in 2016, Trevor Noah’s books talks about his childhood growing up in poverty and his journey into adulthood. Despite the witty persona he displays, his life was not always as rosy as it is now. The autobiographical comedy portrays a Trevor Noah that is unexpectedly raw, yet one who maintains his easy humour.

This book is authentic when it talks about race. He does not beat around the bush, but is very direct about what his truth was. Since he is a comedian, it was quite surprising to read about the more traumatic aspects of his childhood, but more so to read about it in the format in which its written. He bares his life to the reader in an almost blasé, nostalgic way:

“I was nine years old when my mother threw me out if a moving car. It happened on a Sunday.”

Imagine my disbelief at reading that sentence. I was hooked, and also very concerned. This became the tone in which I read on. I did not want to laugh because of how disconcerting what I was reading was when I thought about the fact that it really happened, but I couldn’t help myself since at every turn he would do what he does best and make a joke. Trevor Noah epitomizes what it means to make the best of a bad situation in his novel, and it makes his current success all the more commendable. Reading about his childhood and his family and friendships humbles a person. It pointed out the privileges I had growing up that I would have never credited as being anything extraordinary. Segregation was one of the methods in which the racial divide was established in apartheid South Africa. It is interesting not only to hear the history of that time, but to also see the story attached to it through his young eyes.

Apart from race, his novel discusses domestic abuse, and the disregard of a patriarchal society in addressing it. The frustrations of a boy who cannot do anything to help his and his mother’s situation, become the reader’s, much more so for the reader who is familiar with this kind of society or environment. The abuses his mother and himself suffered at the hands of Abel, his step-father, are rage inducing. The strength and grace it took for them to make it through that chapter of their lives is one that not most have, and is attributed to his mother. Reading about her, I have a deep respect for her and how she raised her son to be a strong and independent man. Their relationship while stereotypically what you would expect of an African mother and son, strikes more as a friendship than anything else. It is striking in the midst of the novel’s narrative, but is crucial in seeing how that bond with his mother led to his becoming who he is today.

Whether or not you’ve heard of Trevor Noah, I highly recommend reading this book if you haven’t already done so. It helps you understand what shaped the author and gives his humour new depth. It highlights that even in extremities, there are joys and positives to be found and inspires you to have a different outlook on life’s hardships.

Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood was published in 2016 by Spiegel & Grau, and there is an upcoming film adaptation in production from Paramount Players.

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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