The moment I finished reading the last line of the final chapter in Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime, it felt like I was left sitting in a cinema after a really good film has played. You know those moments, when the credits are rolling, the lights are slowly coming back up, people are scurrying out to leave, but you can’t move just yet because you’re still thinking about everything you just saw. Only in this case, it’s what was just read. And instead of a cinema, I was in an Upper East Side coffee shop, Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing coming back into ear-shot over the speakers, a woman across from me looking at me with that mix of should-care-but-don’t-want-to-get-involved New York attitude. I realised it’s because I had a couple of tears rolling down my cheek. Tears I didn’t expect to shed reading a book about South Africa’s biggest comic star.
It’s not a spoiler to say that the scene with which Trevor ends the book is one anyone who knows his back-story will familiar with – the story of how his mother was shot by his stepfather, twice. Once in the head. But, if we stay with the film analogy, consider that the trailer stacked with the most dramatic part of the film’s action, intended to hook those with a passing interest. The full story, the way Trevor builds up to this moment through his collection of stories, give that moment its real meaning and significance in the life of The Daily Show host.
Born a Crime is dubbed as a collection of stories about growing up in South Africa on the brink of Apartheid’s end, but it amounts to an autobiography, detailing Trevor’s life as a kid with a with a white Swiss father and black Xhosa mother. His life reflects some of the peculiarities of the country at the time, from living in township to a suburb.
More than that, it essentially is about his mother – the source of his comedy. Trevor’s often said in interviews his mom is the one who gave him his comedic outlook on life, and he explores that in the book, in between moments of great sadness and shame and empathy and, yes, entertainment (Toffee apples and fake Adidas shoes, nogal).
It’s a personal and honest account – Trevor shares stories of being so poor and hungry at one time he ate Mopane worms and not for the exotic culinary delight of it. But through it all, there’s the humour. Even with the embarrassing moments that arose out of his being an outsider, not just racially but geographically, and how he struggled to make friends, to the point that he would look in on other houses to see what they were doing: “I was like a Peeping Tom, but only for friendship.” From his days as a tuck-shop hustler to a stint in jail, his experience with hair relaxer and a Matric Farewell date gone wrong, he relays them all. Some parts lend themselves to humour much easier than others. But somehow, he – or his mother – would find it.
He himself admits time has given him the benefit of hindsight. He writes with an empathetic voice, and I found it made me willing to reconsider some of those who may have injured me in the past. And while it’s written for an American audience as well, some of the explanations will be useful to South Africans too. I am ashamed to admit I didn’t know the origin of the word “cheese-boy” even though I had sung it as a lyric in kwaito songs over and over.
There are some really poignant moments, particularly when he talks about what his relationship with his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, taught him:
“I saw more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence, but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them…”