To be honest, Trevor Noah is one of the most fascinating people to appear upon the public stage in a long time, so when it turned out his book was coming out this November 2016, I put a copy on hold for me at my local Barnes & Noble. But did the staff remember? No. So I had to go chasing them around a few days after it came out. No, it hasn't come out, they said. I'm sure it has, I said. And I was right!
Just so you know, be careful how you handle this book. I have blue dye all over my hands from touching it. The cover by jacket designer Mark Stutzman is unique and innovative. Most covers of an autobiography or a biography have the subject facing forward with a dignified appearance or a sufficiently mysterious look to help you understand what a significant figure he or she is; so you should read the book.
In contrast, Trevor Noah appears on the cover, hand drawn, slapping his hand on his head as if to say, "Oh my God, how in the heck did I get on the cover of so many copies of my book." On the cover, he kind of reminds me of Godzilla towering over the city of Tokyo, except what we have is Trevor and his drawn figure towering over what appears to be a South African township--in a nice way--I mean he's looking like he's in a good mood, not out to eat anyone. However, you do get the sense of this overwhelming presence exploding out South Africa and marching like a monolith, a very cheerful, enjoyable one to be sure, across the landscape.
Facing him, with her back to us, is a much smaller, ambiguous looking African woman, who, I assume, is supposed to represent his mother. This makes sense because the book is dedicated to Trevor Noah's mother and the contents of the book portray the back and forth between the mother and son that created the phenomenon we know today as Trevor Noah, this incredible force of nature, funny man extraordinaire, and as we have found him to be a sensitive, thoughtful, and observant individual. Honoring his mother's dynamic role in this process, Mr. Noah states in his acknowledgments, "And, finally, for bringing me into this world and making me the man I am today, I owe the greatest debt, a debt I can never repay, to my mother."
For those rare individuals who may not know, Trevor Noah is a South African stand up comedian, television and radio host, actor, and currently the host of The Daily Show, taking the place of the well beloved Jon Stewart to more or less success depending on who you talk to. I am just struck by the sheer impossibility of what this young man has achieved, rising from the tough streets of apartheid South Africa to the heights of media fame in New York City. What are the odds? Like non existent?
The book itself is called "Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood." The title arises from the fact noted right at the beginning of the book that Trevor Noah's birth itself was a crime according to the Immorality Act of 1927, the South African law that prohibited sexual intercourse between Europeans and Africans. Trevor's mother was from the native Xhosa tribe and his father was Swiss. This meant that Trevor and his Mom had to hide from the authorities and pretend they didn't know each other if a police officer approached them on the street. This often led Trevor to observe in his comedy routines that in the early years of his life he often felt like a bag of weed, dropped and disowned whenever the police appeared.
This book is a very absorbing read. I will admit it was one of those books that I picked up in the morning and finished later in the day. I think my enjoyment of the book was furthered by the fact that I am already so familiar with Trevor from watching him on Youtube.The book contributed to my experience of Trevor as this incredibly funny and insightful individual with this offbeat sense of humor. Boy, does he crack you up in person and on paper!
I liked the way the book was divided up into a series of short vignettes moving from the past up to the present. Each of the vignettes is prefaced by a short explanation of what you are about to hear with an explanation of any aspect of the story that you might not fully understand. I think that was a fortunate way to put the book together because otherwise the narrative would have been bogged down by extensive explanations. On the other hand, without the information Trevor provides in the explanations we as the audience would have ended up completely lost.
Really, plunging into the world of apartheid in South Africa as well as the years afterward isn't an easy feat. The way Trevor Noah managed it for us with the prefaces and deftly told vignettes makes it easy and accessible. In many ways, you feel as though he has taken you along by his side for the journey through his life. As such, it is a wonderful opportunity for any reader.
In particular, I credit the success of this book to Trevor Noah's good instincts, his South African collaborators, and to the ability of the team of Spiegel & Grau to coordinate effectively with all of them together. Sometimes I think of Spiegel and Grau as a little stuck in the mud, but perhaps I am underestimating them.
Some of the highlights of this book include the drama of schlepping from Church to Church with his mother sometimes leading to considerable differences of opinion regarding what Jesus wants, particularly in one instance where going to Church puts their lives at risk. I was particularly troubled by Trevor Noah's description of his brief experience of dealing with the legal system where you can see how easily that system can destroy lives and imprison the wrong people for the wrong reasons with dire results. Trevor Noah also provides an heart wrenching description of how his mother was subjected to domestic violence from her second husband, who shot and almost killed her. Still, the man faced pretty much zero consequences and is walking free to this day.
Parsing the ins and outs of racial discrimination and its enforcement throughout South Africa is a Science in and of itself, and Trevor Noah does an excellent job of explaining it. This is how we find out intriguing details such as the South African government somehow absurdly thought it made sense to define Japanese people as white, while Chinese people were defined as black. Finally, I will say there is a completely disgusting description of a daily snack Trevor Noah would eat for lunch called a smiley, i.e. a goat's head. I am having a really hard time getting it out of my mind, particularly the way he popped the eyeballs in his mouth and chewed them. Ew!
Anyway, great show from Trevor Noah on his first book. I look forward to so much more from this intelligent young man. The world is all before him!