If I could read this book for the first time again, I would get the audiobook version. Trevor Noah’s voice comes through so clearly in his writing that being able to listen to him narrate the story would give it additional charm and character. Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood is Noah’s autobiography that is pretty much summed up in the subtitle.
The book is divided between Noah’s chapters describing his mother, his schooling, his friends, and his life and interludes that pull back and describe the larger social, economic, or political realities of South Africa – pre and post-Apartheid. The interstitials give a glimpse into what is ahead in the coming narrative, but also give the reader an education into a world in which people immediately try to “know” one another by skin tone, language, and location. Noah never expects the reader to pity him, his mother, or their experiences, but he does clearly expect the reader to ruminate over the ramifications of written social policy and unwritten social codes and their ripple effects.
We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.
Though he is most known from taking over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Noah possesses the soul of a social observer. He has the quick wit and astute assessment abilities of someone who grew up, sensing trouble in the air and figuring out how to either get out of it or make the most of it. Noah expresses legitimate frustration with social reformers- on both sides- expecting sudden (and magical) transformation with education, changes in law, or new governments.
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’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.
Noah’s experience and facility with language not only made him relatable to other people, but it helped him to take the shape of the world around him. In the South Africa of multiple languages, people want to be heard and seen. Noah notes that the more common your native language, the less likely you are to learn other languages Meaning that if you grew up speaking the language of the majority, you are less inclined to lean the language of minorities.
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.
I actually spent three weeks reading this book, hauling it all the way to Chicago and back to AK and then back and forth between work and home several times. For a speed reader, that’s a ridiculous amount of time to spend on a book that is not actually that long. The truth is that I need the time to allow the heavy truths of this book to sink in and roll around in my mind and heart. Noah’s tone is light and there are some truly hilarious moments in the book, but his points are heavy and they hit their mark every time.
This book is good to read, especially for U.S. readers, to ponder what it means for a country to pretend like its history did not exist. What does it mean to end a certain type of oppression and then to immediately take up its opposite? Post-apartheid South Africa and the United States of the last 50 years have similarities, but also significant differences and I am by no means conflating them. Nevertheless, it is possible to read someone else’s story and suddenly realize the tune that plays in the background of your own.
I do think that I would like to listen to Noah read the audiobook, but I am not sure that I could give up or really regret reading the paper copy. Almost every page has an insight that I am not yet finished mulling. Whichever way you might choose to encounter this book, I recommend that you do it.