In Born A Crime Trevor Noah Reminds Us Where He Came From

Photo: Courtesy of Spiegel & Grau.
Once, when Trevor Noah was a little boy, his mother pushed him out of a moving vehicle.

Their car had broken down, so they were riding a minibus and en route to church when the driver began making threats. Noah's mother tried to persuade the man to pull over so they could get out; when he would not, she told her son to prepare to jump. In the end, she shoved Noah out the door, before following herself. They ran and ran and ran until they were safe.

It's a sad story, like many of the personal anecdotes in Born a Crime. But Noah, who was also seemingly born with a knack for finding the comedy in otherwise sobering situations, told his mother that perhaps it was God's way of telling them that they should not have gone to church that day. It is worth reading his book just to find out what she said in response.

But snappy mother/son banter isn't the only reason to pick up Born a Crime. Unlike many a rising celebrity memoir, Born a Crime is an honest, often arresting look at not only its author's personal history, but also the history of a splintered nation. Between his own memories, Noah draws back the lens to offer short segments of sociological analysis that give context to his own experiences — of racism, of privilege, of what it meant to be a "colored" son to a Black mother and a Swiss father, both of whom had to pretend he wasn't their child in public.

The title of your book is a nice turn of phrase. But it's actually the truth: Your very birth was a crime.
"The very union of my parents was forbidden under apartheid laws in South Africa. And, so being in a space wherein I was a product of that law-breaking, I was born a crime. I never lived with it as a mentality — I just always knew that it was something that my parents had done against the laws of the land. Now, luckily, I never had to pay the price for that, because by the time I was old enough to be functioning in the world, apartheid had ended. Had they done it ten years [prior], I probably would have had to go into exile in another country. Timing was in my favor."

You write in your book that you didn't know that families like yours often left South Africa, and when you confronted your mom about that she said something really interesting.
"I never knew that moving was an option — I never knew that you could just go live in another country. I didn't know that most people who were in my position did that. And you can imagine hearing all these wonderful things about places like Switzerland and so on — you can't help thinking to yourself, 'Man, I could have lived a very, very nice life in another country, with a European passport.' But my mom did have a strong reason, and I think the correct reason. That was: Why leave when it's her country? Why let people run her out of the place that she calls home?"

"America is almost as dysfunctional as many African countries."

Trevor Noah
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That was a powerful moment in the book, and also encapsulates how strong your mom is. Has she eased up on you at all since you've grown up?
"I think she's softened a little bit. Mostly because she's getting older. But she's still as strong as she was before. She's still as sure of herself as she was. She's still as independent as she's always been.”

One theme that comes up throughout the book is prejudice, the nuances of that, of your life in South Africa. I'm curious about how you see prejudice at play in the United States?
"I see many similarities between the prejudice in the U.S. and what I experienced in South Africa, during and post-apartheid. The biggest differences I've seen though IS how subtle it is in America. America has never really had to come to grips with its racial past. It's never truly had to have a reckoning and a reconciliation with what has happened in the country to multiple groups.

"It's always been something that has been glossed over, commented on in a few ways and then moved on from. But nothing that the American public as a whole has had to sit down and genuinely grapple with. In South Africa it's not a question of: Was it bad? Was it real? But rather: How bad? And what should we do to move forward? Whereas in the U.S. you still have people going: I don't know if this thing was as big a deal as you make it out to be. And I don't even know if it exists today."

Well, and especially during this election cycle.
"It's not as strange as many Americans would like to think it is: If you look at the rise of right-wing nationalism all over the world, you understand why this is happening. It's happening in Europe, in Australia, and in the Americas, as well as in the U.K. So you come to see that this is a feeling and a sentiment that is growing — as opposed to a freak, isolated incident that's just happening in the United States of America."

"People just assume I'm some rich, jock kid that came from a great family and just stepped into The Daily Show."

Trevor Noah

"I still enjoy and appreciate the United States. But I will say: When I first got here, I guess I had an inferiority complex about where I was from. Now I've come to realize that America is almost as dysfunctional as many African countries. It's just [America has] found a way to make that dysfunction a part of the system. You don't have to be Democrat to see that Donald Trump is a mad man. There is a reason that most Republicans have separated themselves from him... I've had conversations with Mitt Romney, and Lindsey Graham — these are people who I may not have agreements [with] on many things, and yet we can agree that Donald Trump is one of the scariest propositions for the United States."

Are there any conceptions about yourself floating out in the world you're hoping to correct or change with this book?
"I remember when I first got The Daily Show, people genuinely made assumptions about me as a human being and the world I came from. I don't know how it came to be — maybe it's because I'm wearing a suit on TV, people just assume I'm some rich, jock kid that came from a great family and just stepped into The Daily Show. People made it seem like I did not work to get here, or I did not work to get to where I am in life.

"The best way I can put it is: It's like people judging the swan because they weren't there when it was an ugly duckling. If you think about it, that's what makes that story what it is. Is the fact that [I] was an ugly duckling: When you see the swan, it's not as impressive. I don't think [the book will] change misconceptions because we're in a world where people live within what they want to live within. I'm excited for the ability to connect with some people who may not know me or my story. But it's not about changing anyone's perception of me. Rather, just connecting with people, and hopefully helping people find some catharsis. Because it seems that many people deal with being insecure, being lonely, being an outsider. Relationships with parents, with stepparents' abuse in the home — these are all issues that many of us have had to deal with, unfortunately. And a lot of the time we deal with them alone, because we're embarrassed and ashamed to talk about it in public."

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah, is available from Spiegel & Grau on November 15, 2016.
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