A fun fact about yours truly is that one of my favorite genres is Comedian Autobiography. If I’m going to read about someone’s life, where there are probably going to be some sad parts (as is true in many lives), I want to at least laugh a little.
Born a Crime is no exception in this regard, but it does change the rules I’d come to expect in the Comedian Autobiography genre.
Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood came out late last year. Unlike the other autobiographies I’d read (and am currently working through) by the likes of Amy Poehler, Terry Crews, Tina Fey, and Mindy Kaling, Trevor Noah is still a fresh face. Literally. These other people had published their books after years and years of working usually in a different industry or going to college, usually after having kids, getting married, getting divorced, switching industries, etc. etc. Trevor Noah was not only born and raised in South Africa, but he is also a millennial, a recent 33-year-old. Although he’s been touring the world for years as a comedian, it wasn’t until he got the gig as the John Stewart’s Daily Show successor in 2015 that America truly knew his name.
Perhaps that’s why the autobiography doesn’t read like others in the genre, with a mostly straightforward chronology of the author’s life with a few interludes and thanks thrown in. No, Born a Crime is more like a collection of interludes and pieces of South African history, of stories from a South African Childhood, with common themes of Noah’s appreciation of his mother, Patricia, his thought-out plans of mischief, and his desire to one day fit in connecting the dots between each tale.
Born a Crime also reads more like a fiction novel than a non-fiction biography. From the the very beginning, Noah sets up an underlying sense of suspense and the importance of his mother in his life despite all of the other characters that weave in and out of his narrative, all with the charismatic and comedic tone we’ve come to recognize as Noah’s unique voice:
To this day I hate secondhand cars. Almost everything that’s gone wrong in my life I can trace back to a secondhand car. Secondhand cars made me get detention for being late to school. Secondhand cars left us hitchhiking on the side of the freeway. A secondhand car was also the reason my mom got married. If it hadn’t been for the Volkswagen that didn’t work, we never would have looked for the mechanic who became the husband who became the stepfather who became the man who tortured us for years and put a bullet in the back of my mother’s head–I’ll take the new car with the warranty every time (Noah “Run” 9)
Whether I was learning about the apartheid’s effects on Noah’s existence during the 1980s and ’90s, relating to his love/hate relationship with church in a black family, laughing at his many (MANY) misguided pranks gone wrong and the consequences, or crying at moments that just seemed unfair, the back of my mind was constantly begging me to turn the page, “But what happens to his mom? We have to find out what happens to his mom.” The answer to that occurs at the end, the last chapter of the book, titled “My Mother’s Life,” the telling of which kept me tensed up and silent until I reached the last page…
Another reason Born a Crime seems like an outsider to the comedian autobiography genre is not totally surprising to me, after reading the book, is because Noah, himself, has constantly felt like an outsider. Because his existence as a mixed child of a black African mother and white European father was considered a crime for part of his childhood (because of the apartheid), Noah had a strange childhood–he couldn’t go out to play with the other kids or even with his mother for fear of someone arresting his mother or taking him to an orphanage; even under mild circumstances, such as in a lower-policed area, seeing his father in public or even addressing him as “Dad” was out of the question.
Even after the apartheid is over, Noah has trouble fitting in–whose group does he go to? The blacks? The whites? Noah is like a chameleon, who knows different languages, even as a child, and uses this skill to navigate between different groups of people, people from different tribes, even when he is still on the outskirts.
Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being” (Noah “The World Doesn’t Love You” 236)
Anyone who’s seen Trevor Noah’s comedy special Afraid of the Dark will not be surprised by his ability to seamlessly master a variety of languages and accents. But, in the special as well as the book, Noah doesn’t use this ability only to translate or get what he wants; he uses it to understand. A common feature of the comedian autobiography is the author feeling like an outsider and using the gift of laughter as their ticket into the world, the club everyone else seems to be a part of. Here, Noah provides the reasoning behind this, basically saying, “They laugh because they can relate to it. Joy, like sadness, is something everyone can understand, something everyone can express. We all sound the same when we laugh.”
Speaking of laughter, what is missing from the book, I feel, is a story behind why Noah decided to get into comedy or even the path of becoming a successful comedian. After finishing high school, Noah took an odd path of being a pirate deejay (as in using stolen music, not the “arrgh” kind) as his main hustle. Though the epiphany of turning his life away from the hood where he hung out is implied, the author doesn’t give any indication to what he would be doing next, only:
I chose to live in that world, but I wasn’t from that world. If anything, I was an imposter. Day to day I was in it as much as everyone else, but the difference was that in the back of my mind I knew I had other options. I could leave. They couldn’t (Noah “Cheese Boys” 224)
Perhaps Born a Crime is meant to be an indirect answer as to why Trevor Noah took the comedian route. Despite the pain he’s endured (physical and emotional), from being the result of a crime (as a mixed child during apartheid) to constantly getting caught in his bad behavior as a kid to his first heartbreak (by a dog named Fufi) to awkward adolescence to spending days in jail to a home of abuse all leading up to the story of his mother getting shot, Noah tells his story like only he can: with honesty, meticulous and ridiculous details, and hints of humor in every situation. In the book, Noah’s mother always finds a way to show her dedication to Jesus or a way to laugh during hers and her son’s many mishaps (sometimes both).
If Born a Crime is a thank you letter from Trevor to his mother, for not only teaching him how to think but also teaching him how to find a way to make life more bearable, more humorous than the bleak moments seem, then Trevor Noah’s career as a comedian and news satire show host is his way of paying her teachings forward, by teaching us how to laugh too.
You can find more of my Book Reviews here. Looking for another comedian autobiography? I wholeheartedly recommend Amy Poehler’s Yes Please on audiobook (Poehler’s improv-trained voice telling her own story really gives it that AHMAZING something extra).