There are stories that are best enjoyed when read and then there are some that absolutely must be listened to. Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime falls in the latter category.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
As the music slowly swallows his final words and swells up through the ending credits, your tear-stained cheeks can’t help but plaster itself in an infinite smile.
This is an endearing story of a mother and child who made their own in the midst of a crumbling apartheid and the polarising days that followed. Written and narrated by Trevor Noah, Born a Crime, sets a new gold standard for memoir storytelling and in the process redefines the genres of autobiography and audiobooks all at once.
Storytelling is an art form at which even the world’s best writers would probably fail, it is a skill that our grandparents mastered after repeated attempts with their children and then with their children’s children. While pulling off mythology among a ten-year-old intellect crowd is one thing, narrating your entire childhood to a total stranger from the other side of the globe, that’s an entirely different ball game.
With Born a Crime, Trevor Noah does this with such exquisite class, which you probably would expect from one of the world’s brightest comedians, but his range and variety are astonishing, to say the least. The racially torn nation is so vividly portrayed by Noah, all the characters flavoured with individual vocal textures and his mastery over the number of African languages and accents, only add to the overall experience.
Born to a white Swiss-German father and a black Xhosa mother during a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison, Noah’s often comical and at times horrifying coming of age tale is a truly compelling and uplifting journey.
The audiobook is filtered throughout with laugh-out-loud hilarious anecdotes, such as when a young Noah ever so silently takes a shit on a newspaper in the living room of their house in front of his clueless blind great grandmother, and when Noah the young DJ and his dance crew from the hood perform at a Jewish school hip hopping and shouting “GO HITLER” at the top of their lungs. But this isn’t just another breezy light-hearted comedy routine by any means.
This is a deeply personal and sincerely honest memoir of a half black, half white man from a third world nation where racial oppression is a fragment of its culture. With a wealth of life experiences at such a young age, Noah narrates his own childhood with such wit and grace, one would find it hard to fathom that it very well could have been another half-baked patronising memoir of an American celebrity.
Noah is astutely observant and presents South Africa with great insight – a nation with eleven official languages and fractured into black, white, coloured, Indian, Xhosa, Tsulu, Tsonga, Pedi and many more. Born a Crime, a personal story of survival is at the same time an educational and academic work of sheer brilliance that truly exposes apartheid for what is was, its legacy and the damage it has brought upon an entire nation.
At the heart of it all, more than South Africa, more than Noah, Born a Crime is the story of the woman who gave him his name, the story of a fiercely religious soul who put herself between her son and the world and made him a man- Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah.
From early on in the book, the clash of religious ideologies between mother and son are comically visited upon, she dragging her son to three different churches every Sunday and him blaming her faith for getting them kidnapped and almost killed on one of those routine Sundays. The book lays out a genuine argument for both opposing sides and the ending just sums it up all too beautifully.
Set in a world unknown and unfamiliar to many of us, Born a Crime, is filled with characters most of us can relate to and with experiences similar to what we have gone through.
While the chances of any of us having spent an entire month eating just spiny caterpillars for breakfast, lunch and dinner are a minimum, the story is broken down to the most basic of human emotions. This tale of a mother and son who against the worst of odds come out unscathed, all the more determined and forged with a sweet generous appreciation for the goodness of life, is proof to all of us of the purpose of life.
Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with a desire to explore life through the stories he chases. An engineer who found recluse in the world of words, he is a journalism post-graduate from Cardiff University. He works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.