Reviewed by Antonella Townsend
Trevor Noah was born into a truckload of disadvantage that will be beyond the imagination of most of his readers. His auto-biography, It’s Trevor Noah: Born a Crime, Stories from a South African Childhood, (adapted for young readers) applies intelligent analysis of Noah’s early life in South Africa, chronicling a personal and political account of the atrocious practices of apartheid revealing its dehumanising and unsustainable practice. He survived to become an international comedian and political commentator as host of The Daily Show in New York.
Noah makes clear his mother’s intelligence and ‘can-do’ attitude is at the root of his success. Named Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, carrying the meaning ‘she who gives back’, she decided to give her son a name that held no particular significance, so she thought he would not be destined for a prescribed fate. Patricia provided Trevor with as many books as she could, determined to free his mind so that he could achieve great things. She always told him ‘Learn from your past and be better because of your past’ and ‘let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.’ Patricia was deeply religious, consequently, Noah spent many hours in church. She told him that God is love and the Bible truth, but everything else was up for debate encouraging him to challenge authority and question the system. The ‘system’ was stacked up against him as Noah was a mixed race child – his mother African from the Xhosa Tribe and his father was a white man from Switzerland. In South Africa this was an illegal relationship, hence Noah was born a crime. Patricia spent her life circumventing these petty rules, achieving as much as she possibly could under an oppressive system. As a young mixed race child, neither black nor white, Noah didn’t fit into any one group, so was generally treated with suspicion. However, from his mother’s example he learnt that language builds bridges and, like his mother, Noah was gifted when it came to learning languages. His mother insisted that English was spoken at home, as was Xhosa, Patricia’s home language, also German was used as his father’s language. It was also necessary to know Afrikaans, as the language of the oppressor. Zulu is similar to Xhosa so he picked that up and more. Through language he managed to be broadly accepted, learning early in life that language characterizes you more than colour, or race.
In his late teens, Noah teamed up with some boys from the ‘hood’ and earned a living hustling mixed tapes and organising music for parties. But before too long herealised that the ‘hood’ was taking a hold on his life, and if he didn’t make a move he might not ever escape. His mother warned him that the place where you spend your time often defines you.
There are gripping moments of terror in this book, like when his mother threw him from a moving car; and then the time when he landed up in prison on remand; when his step father beat him up, and, worst of all, when his mother was shot. But despite the hardship there are many comedic moments in Trevor Noah’s boyhood and young readers will learn and laugh, and, hopefully, realise that where you start in life is not necessarily where you will finish. This book is inspiring.
By Trevor Noah