Trevor Noah shot to international fame in 2015 when the legendary Jon Stewart, the father of late night political satire, announced that Noah would succeed him at the helm of The Daily Show. What is remarkable about Noah’s story isn’t so much that he managed to snatch the most coveted seat in US late night comedy (arguably a feat in its own right) but that rather his childhood and how he beat all odds. In his memoir Born a Crime. Stories From a South Childhood Noah employs his comedy to tell a story that, in many ways, is far from being funny. Growing up amidst poverty and racial discrimination in a nation only just emerging from the shadows of white supremacist rule towards democracy, Noah’s story could easily have taken a different path.
He was born the son of a black South African mother and a white Swiss father during the final years of apartheid, which made him a literal crime: inter-racial relations were not allowed. This led to Noah living, at times, a strange existence: if he was seen with his black family in their black neighborhood, he risked being sent off to an orphanage while his mother risked a jail sentence. On the other hand, he could not be seen with his white father either, as this could equally have led to legal action. Noah credits his experience of growing up as the odd one out for his outside perspective and ability to always see the other side, even when he does not agree with it.
The stories of his childhood are violent and cruel, hilarious and hopeful, incredible yet universal. Noah doesn’t shy away from describing the extreme poverty in which he lived nor the somewhat dubious businesses he fell back on in order to earn a living when university was out of the question financially. He revisits his high-school crushes as well as the domestic abuse he and his mother endured for years without help from the police or the judicial system. No matter the circumstances, Noah never lost his sense of humor and continues to emphasize the power of laughter in the midst of hardship. Unsurprisingly, comic relief is the major thread running through the book. Noah’s style isn’t particularly eloquent but it is honest, at times brutally so, and functions as a window into post-Apartheid-era South Africa where many of the problems created by decades of oppression continue to persist.
It is obvious to readers and commentators who the hero, or rather the heroine, of the story is: Noah’s mother, a remarkable human being by all accounts, whose determination, fearlessness and unyielding faith enabled her to live her life to the fullest despite mountains of difficulties. It seems that she has also managed to transfer her wisdom and grit to her son.
Born a Crime is a coming-of-age story both extremely personal and very universal and relatable. At the same time, it’s a window into the soul of a man who seems to embody the ‘American Dream’: rising from poverty, fighting against discrimination, and, with hard work and determination, becoming the host of a global TV phenomenon. His ability to build bridges and engage the opposing side in conversation – skills that he had no choice but to learn – are invaluable in his adopted home as well as in his job as a liberal conscience in a country struggling to come to terms with the Trump presidency. They also bring us solace at a time when the kind of optimism his personal story is imbued with seems to be in short supply.