Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Hodgepodge 45/365 - Book Report (Born a Crime)

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) (12/13/16)

Although I don't watch The Daily Show regularly, every time I do tune in I enjoy Trevor Noah's wit and insight. This book, a memoir of his growing-up years in the suburbs of Johannesburg and the township of Soweto, reflects those qualities. Noah is a master storyteller and a keen social observer.

Born to a Xhosa mother and a German- Swiss father during apartheid, Noah was literally "a crime": such unions were illegal. As a result, he had to remain largely hidden from view and so spent much of his early childhood indoors or behind the walls of his grandmother's compound. He was light-skinned, and his black family considered him "white," while white people considered him "black," and he did not fit culturally with colored people—yes, mixed blood is its own ethnic category—which meant he grew up feeling very much an outsider.

But his mother taught him the value of language, and he learned to speak many, starting with English. "If you're black in South Africa, speaking English is the one thing that can give you a leg up. English is the language of money. English comprehension is equated with intelligence. If you're looking for a job, English is the difference between getting the job or staying unemployed." They also spoke Xhosa at home, and Trevor learned Afrikaans ("it is useful to know the language of your oppressor") as well as several other African languages. "I became a chameleon. My color didn't change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn't look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you."

He tells about his Sundays visiting three churches with his religious mother (the first mixed, the second white, the third black: jubilant, analytical, and passionate-cathartic, respectively), going to school and trying to fit in, miserable attempts at dating, becoming a streetcorner hustler, living in the garage of his auto mechanic stepfather, at whose hands he and his mother both suffered violence. At one point they were so poor they were forced to survive on bowls of marogo, a kind of wild spinach, and mopane worms (actually a caterpillar, hairy and, well, icky: I've tried them). When he is arrested for stealing a car of his stepfather's, he at first thinks that spending time in jail might be better than going home—until he realizes how the system actually works.

I gained a much more thorough understanding of the workings and legacy of apartheid. I also appreciated very much Trevor's obvious love of his strong, fierce, resilient mother, with whom he begins and ends the book. It's a lovely, wise memoir.

1 comment:

  1. I just downloaded this on Audible. Now, I really look forward to it.