Born A Crime

The Australian, 31 December 2016

When Trevor Noah, a 31-year-old South African comedian, replaced Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, US television viewers did a bit of an “eh, what?” It’s hard to overstate Stewart’s impact and cultural relevance after 16 years as America’s ­satirist-in-chief. Noah’s appointment was like a promising all-rounder from the suburban under-14s being selected to captain the Australian cricket team. Or a reality TV host being elected president of the United States.

But while I’ve missed Stewart, I’ve been cheered by Noah’s jokey, well-delivered bemusement at political idiocy. I confess, however, to scepticism when I saw the media release for Noah’s book Born a Crime. “Ah,” I thought, “the new star’s publisher, slapping some blog posts between two covers and paying off a holiday house.”

Happily, I was wrong. Born a Crime isn’t the premature career memoir I feared but an excellent collection of essays about growing up in apartheid South Africa. It feels, in a way, like an introduction to his audience, a genteel rebuttal of any assertion that he fell, as the poets say, “arse backwards” into one of America’s most prestigious TV jobs. And it establishes Noah — quite separately from his comedy work — as a literary writer.

Born to a black mother and white father in 1984, Noah was, as the title says, literally a crime. South Africa was strictly segregated, with “whites”, “Indians”, “coloureds” and “blacks” forced apart. One “of the worst crimes you [could] commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race”, Noah writes. “Needless to say, my parents committed that.”

As an “illegal” “mixed” boy with a different skin colour to his parents, he couldn’t be seen in the street with either of them: “the government could come in, strip your parents of custody, haul you off to an orphanage”. Similarly, he had to hide his existence when visiting his maternal grandparents in the black township of Soweto.

That led to a complex racial and cultural identity. He appeared “coloured” and identified as “black”, but neither group accepted him, something that defined Noah’s social experience from his first day of school until adulthood. “I became,” he writes, “a chameleon. My colour didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my colour.”

Racist policies created abject poverty in non-white communities. Noah and his mother survived on meat scraps sold for dogs and marogo, “a kind of wild spinach, cooked with caterpillars”. His family spent a year living in his step-father’s failing garage: “sleep in some car, wake up, wash in a janitor sink … brush my hair in the rearview mirror of a Toyota, and try to get dressed without oil and grease getting all over my school clothes”.

To save petrol, Noah’s mother cut the engine while in traffic, making him push as they inched forward. Holidays were spent in his grandmother’s two-room shack, where the family slept side by side on the floor. “There was no indoor running water, just one communal outdoor faucet and one outdoor toilet that everyone shared for six or seven houses.” Unable to afford university when he finished school, Noah’s “gap year” was in the “hood”, selling pirated CDs and working as a cheerful payday loan hustler.

Noah portrays South Africa with nuance, alive to the dazzle of sense and smell. And he recounts the events that shaped his childhood with empathy, curiosity and a sharp sense of ­social justice. But the book’s core is his relationship with his mother, Patricia. Fiercely independent, deeply religious, she raised Noah “as if there were no limitations”, refusing to be “bound by ridiculous ideas of what black people couldn’t or shouldn’t do”.Her story is one of deep-felt and hard-fought love for her “illegal” son. But Noah didn’t make life easy: “she was always chasing me to kick my ass … We had a very Tom and Jerry relationship, me and my mom. She was the strict disciplinarian; I was naughty as shit.”

His reputation as a “prankster” included accidentally burning down a house and a week in jail. Patricia’s punishments were hard, but came from love and fear: “When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When [the police] beat you, they’re trying to kill you.” This mother-son relationship animates the book, and Patricia’s domestic abuse by Noah’s stepfather makes for a shocking and poignant conclusion.

While funny in places, Noah’s book isn’t a long stand-up set or a comedian’s memoir (it barely touches on his career). Rather, Born a Crime is a skilful coming-of-age story that establishes Noah as a fine literary essayist. As Clive James did so well, Noah has begun to straddle late night and literary careers. That’s no easy feat.

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