Noah’s arc: Intimate and humane

Back story: A hoarding advertises Trevor Noah on  Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, a subject not in his book. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Back story: A hoarding advertises Trevor Noah on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, a subject not in his book. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

BORN A CRIME by Trevor Noah

(Pan Macmillan)

In the beginning was the Mother. And what a remarkable mother Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah was and is to her firstborn son Trevor.

“I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car. It happened on a Sunday,” writes Noah in the second paragraph of his notably honest book.

What follows is not a car chase, but a chase from a car, Trevor and Patricia being pursued by a malevolent taxi driver whom they outpaced because, as we learn a little later, he was the Maryvale College sports day sprint champion each year, and she took the mothers’ sprint trophy annually.

Noah’s openness about the influence of women on his upbringing, and of his mother in particular, accords with his lived reality but must be seen also as principled, given the dominance of patriarchy and male hegemony in many communities and cultures.

So, where was father? Roger Federer is not the only world-famous Swiss South African. Noah’s dad is Robert, a Swiss-German 22 years his mother’s senior.

Born on February 20 1984, Trevor fell foul of any number of apartheid-era laws: to start, his parents had broken the Immorality Act (the 1927 version of which is the apt epigraph to the book).

In the simple, powerful prose that characterises Noah’s writing here, he recounts: “The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations – I was born a crime.”

He was also born with a confusion of nationality, ethnicity and identity: “My mother lied and said I was born in KaNgwane, the semi-sovereign homeland for Swazi people living in South Africa. So my birth certificate doesn’t say that I’m Xhosa, which technically I am. And it doesn’t say that I’m Swiss, which the government wouldn’t allow. It just says that I’m from another country.”

The past is another country, they say, and Noah takes the reader through the years from 1984, with brief servings of our history and its lurid laws and practices around race, work, sex and violence to contextualise his personal story for non-South African readers.

This is Trevor Noah’s story told through stories and vignettes that are sharply observed, deftly conveyed and consistently candid. Growing organically from them is an affecting investigation of identity, ethnicity, language, masculinity, nationality and, most of all, humanity – all issues that the election of Donald Trump in the United States shows are foremost in minds and hearts everywhere.

Before reading the book, I wondered to what degree Noah’s status as a leading citizen of the global, transnational media might influence its style and content. And a confession: I have heard him on the BBC World Service but have never seen him perform live or on television. I know of and about Trevor Noah the DJ, the comedian, the political satirist, the TV presenter and personality – but at a remove, via the media itself. I don’t know him as a creative artist and it worried me that I would be disrespecting him and his work to come to his book of life-writing (he’s too young to write a memoir or autobiography) with such ignorance. (I feared also that I would be making my way through a blizzard of one-liners: needlessly, it turns out.)

To my relief, Born a Crime is not about Trevor Noah of The Daily Show in the US fame. The show is not even mentioned. Instead, this is a moving, intimate story of growing up in South Africa from 1984. It stands as an archetypal rite-of-passage and coming-to-maturity tale, with unflinching and vivid accounts of home and school life in township and city, domestic violence, enterprising young men in Alex scrabbling to make the barest of livings, and the optimism, endurance and faith of Nombuyiselo (She Who Gives Back) Noah.

It is also profoundly sad. Even though he says, “there were so many perks to being ‘white’ in a black family, I can’t lie”, Trevor struggles to fit in with black or coloured children.

Three quotes, from different sections of the book, show how poignant was his search for belonging:

“Whenever the kids in the street saw me they’d yell, ‘Indoda yomlungu!’ ‘The white man!’ ”

“That made me realise that language, even more than colour, defines who you are to people. So I became a chameleon. My colour didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my colour. If you spoke to me in isiZulu, I replied in isiZulu. If you spoke to me in Setswana, I replied to you in Setswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.”

“They [black children at his school] were confused at first. Because of my colour, they thought I was a coloured person, but speaking the same languages meant that I belonged to their tribe. It just took them a moment to figure it out. It took me a moment, too.”

What the reader gleans are the insights that made Noah the thoughtful, observant, empathic man who wrote Born a Crime. All these formative experiences and his even-then mature thinking account for why he has become globally known.

There is nothing in the writing to suggest that his status has gone to his head. The opposite seems to shine through: here is a level-headed man, forged by remarkable and shocking life incidents, who is quietly determined and who knows where home and the heart lie.

Would this unique story have been published had it been about someone not a celebrity of the planet? Possibly not, and to the detriment of potential readers, because this is a warm and very human story of the type that we will need to survive the Trump presidency’s imminent freezing of humane values.

 
Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone is books editor of the Mail & Guardian and director of the annual M&G Literary Festival. All Under Heaven, the memoir of his (mainly) Chinese family in South Africa (David Philip, 2004), was shortlisted for the 2005 Alan Paton Award. Accone is a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University. Read more from Darryl Accone

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