Review: Memoir

Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

An autobiography of the comedian Trevor Noah, this book tells stories of his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood in South Africa, during and after apartheid.

Born a Crime opens with the text of the law that forbade white men and black women from having intercourse during apartheid. After that, this autobiography is segmented into 18 chapters, each chapter preceded by a 1-2 page blurb. Most often, these blurbs talk about the social and cultural context of some aspect of life in South Africa, usually related to apartheid. Sometimes, these blurbs are simply an even shorter snapshot out of Trevor Noah’s life. The blurb sets the scene, and gives the American reader context for the coming chapter.

This book reads more like a collection of short memoirs than one single work. I found that I quite liked that. Some stories give context for other stories, but you could reasonably pick up the book and start at any chapter, and be able to enjoy that story in and of itself.

This was undoubtably written with an American audience in mind. The text often goes out of its way to explain South African social stereotypes and norms in a way that related to stereotypes and norms in America. There were numerous remarks on the differences between life in South Africa and the United States. I smiled to myself as I read some of these, thinking of readers I know who I imagine might take offense at the generalizations and stereotypes. However, for my own part, I did enjoy these parts as much as any other—perhaps more.

The subtext made it abundantly clear that Noah is using generalization to depict a scene and a culture as he has experienced it, rather than to define any individuals in a certain way. Often, these generalizations are in the context of how Noah did or did not fit within a group, and what he could or could not do about that. Not only are his experiences fascinating to read—they are ones I can utterly identify with. Noah’s explanations and depictions are clear and concise, and powerfully resonant. There were a few times when I would read a passage and my eyes would widen as realization crashed down on my head like a ton of bricks: This! This is what I’ve been living all my life! I never knew it could be stated this way!

Obviously, there were also parts where Noah’s experiences—and therefore his generalizations—contradicted mine completely. Even then, I was no less invested in the text, in learning how he had weathered his otheredness and his obstacles.

This was a poignant book, excellently written. From the first page, I was utterly invested. There were a few stories where I felt my interest waver—but not because they were poorly written. It was simply that all the stories around them were even more engaging and well fleshed-out that they seemed a little wanting only by comparison.

The most powerful story, and the one that is most talked about with regards to this book, is the last. I’m glad that it was last. First of all: any of the other stories would have felt weak by comparison if they came after it. But more importantly: it was a breathtaking note on which to end a book. I closed this book with a smile on my face and hope in my heart, while feeling the exhaustion of the emotional wringer I had just read through.

I would whole-heartedly recommend this to anyone, especially those who have grown up in an environment or culture where they were othered.

I’m giving away my copy of this book (I can’t keep it, thanks to an impending move), so if you’re interested in receiving it (which you probably will, as no one’s requested it yet), please go here!

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