Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

By Debie Thomas

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Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (New York: Random House, 2016), 304pp.

“Where most children are proof of their parents’ love,” Trevor Noah writes in his compelling new memoir, “I was the proof of their criminality.” Born to a Xhosa mother and a Swiss-German father in the waning days of apartheid in South Africa, Noah describes what it was like to grow up as a mixed-race child in a political and cultural climate where he was literally “born a crime” — neither white enough to be white, nor black enough to be black. “In any society built on institutionalized racism,” Noah writes, “race-mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust; it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke… race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.”

Noah’s beautifully told stories of childhood and adolescence are funny and self-deprecating, but they also shine a light on profound questions of personal and communal identity. What does it mean to belong? What is at stake (personally and politically) in choosing one cultural identity over another? When is choice a privilege, and when is it a burden? Moving deftly between humor, earnestness, and insight, Noah explores the complexities of race, class, language, religion, and gender under apartheid and its immediate aftermath. Along the way, he introduces a fascinating cast of characters — his rebellious and courageous mother, his fiercely devout grandmother, his quiet and aloof father, his menacing stepfather, and many others — who guide him on his complicated journey from boyhood to adulthood. While Noah is known primarily as the hugely successful host of The Daily Show, this new book reveals him to be a skilled and nuanced writer of memoir as well.

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