“IMMORALITY ACT, 1927: To prohibit illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives…” begins Trevor Noah’s 2016 memoir, “Born a Crime.”
Noah, a comedian and the current host of “The Daily Show,” was born illegally. The Immorality Act he includes at the very start of his memoir made his being born a crime; Noah’s mother is a black South African woman and his father is a white Swiss man. Apartheid was the system of government in South Africa until 1991. It legally separated the racial and ethnic groups of South Africa and concentrated wealth, power and desirable jobs in the hands of white South Africans. Noah describes South Africa post-apartheid as being “at war with itself”’ because of this.
“Born a Crime” includes handy explanations of systems of Apartheid that continue to impact South Africa even after Apartheid fell, such as the separate neighborhoods for specific races.
It’s far from being a textbook, though. Noah’s work is mostly funny. The tone of “The Daily Show” translates to his memoir, especially when he’s describing situations that could be quite dark in the hands of a different author. This does create a bit of an emotional distance between the reader and the darker moments, but it worked for me. When Noah wanted a chapter to be sad, it was successful, it’s just that that wasn’t usually his intention.
He also mixes in segments with entirely different tones. The chapter where Noah discovers that his stepfather has serious anger issues is followed immediately by a chapter that includes the sentence, “I understood Valentine’s Day, as a concept. The naked baby shoots you with an arrow and you fall in love.”
The broadest re-occurring theme of “Born a Crime,” and what I believe held the book together, is Noah’s relationship with his mother. She’s a strong character throughout the book and the person you learn the most about other than Noah. Their relationship anchors the first and last chapters, and most of the middle.
Although I enjoyed this book, I didn’t read it particularly quickly. It’s a clever book and it’s very different from many memoirs out there. I learned about the author’s life, but I also learned little details about an entirely different culture that the average reader wouldn’t encounter in their everyday life.
The chapters of the book are mostly unconnected and frequently function more like short stories than chapters. While there are broad recurring details, you could probably read them out of order without it being too much of a problem, and you can take large breaks in reading and still understand what’s happening. The disconnected nature of the pieces didn’t bother me, but it may not be your vibe.
“Born a Crime” could probably make for a good beach read; with the exception of a few chapters, it’s a fun book.
Ultimately I’d give “Born a Crime” a four out of five. It’s very different from most memoirs I’ve read because of its content. Trevor Noah works very hard to describe life in South Africa without being boring or sounding like a textbook, and “Born a Crime” works.