Brenda Smit-James ~ Author, Memoirist, Instructor

Memoir Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah


Book Cover of Memoir, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

A great way to learn how to write a memoir is to read memoirs. I do that – a lot. So, I thought, why not do a book review on the memoirs I read – and use them to highlight certain aspects of memoir writing?

Good idea – don’t you think?

I thought it was.

I review the memoir based on questions that, in themselves, have value as they reflect the questions that readers subconsciously ask themselves when reading.

Here we go with Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.

What drew me to reading the memoir?

I’d heard about Trevor Noah and watched a handful of his shows. But that wasn’t it. I picked up his book because I’m always interested to read about fellow South Africans and how they have made it on the big stage. How did they get from obscurity at the bottom end of Africa to where they are today?

Also, the title Born a Crime cinched the deal. It really drew me in.

What hooked me in the first chapter?

It certainly wasn’t the opening paragraph which I think could have been left out entirely.

The book could’ve started with the opening line of the second paragraph where Trevor Noah writes, “I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car.” That certainly intrigued me but it isn’t what hooked me.

The hook started to press into my skin when next he says that the incident happened on a Sunday, after church, because as he writes, “We never missed church. My mother was – and still is – a deeply religious woman. Very Christian.” But it really took hold two pages on when Trevor Noah names one of the three churches he and his mother attended every Sunday, Rosebank Union Church. That is my church – at least the church where I married and the church I joined when I started dating my husband.

Now there was no letting go, I wanted to know more.

In fact, I called out to my husband, “You’ll never guess what we have in connection with Trevor Noah! We all attended at Rosebank Union and at about the same time. Perhaps you met his mother, Patricia? Trevor though would’ve been just a tjokkie.” Which is South African slang for a young child.

Now I felt that Trevor and I had a connection, and I was keen to get to know his mother more.

Being thrown out of moving cars is certainly interesting, but it doesn’t happen to all of us. The deeper connection between writer and reader is often made in the most ordinary and inconsequential ways. So don’t discount some of the ordinariness of your story – that is where you will more likely connect with your reader.

What surprised me about the book?

I was surprised by the theme of faith that is woven throughout this book. I sure didn’t expect it, and certainly not straight out of the gate. It’s a thread that tells of Trevor Noah’s mother’s faith and his response to his mother being on ‘Team Jesus’ as he calls it. I’m always interested in how other Christians live out their faith and Patricia Noah is certainly an inspiration. Particularly, in the power of prayer. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.

What didn’t I like about the book?

There is only one thing I didn’t like – the profanity. It isn’t as prolific as confetti on every page, but it is a whole lot more than I would like and, at a level, I don’t usually tolerate. In fact, I would normally put the book down and not read it.

Not only do I personally not like profanity but, as a writer, I find it a weak style of writing. There are far more interesting ways to convey an emotion or to express yourself – even if you were a small-time criminal in the making.

Although more than I like, the profanity wasn’t excessive, so I had enough time between pages before I cringed again.

So, what kept me reading a book, I would normally set aside?

It was that Trevor Noah was talking my time, my area, my language. I wanted to know what Trevor Noah’s experience was of growing up in South Africa.

I could identify with so much about the time in South Africa he writes about. His memoir is set on the East Rand and in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg, both places I have lived. And I drove by Soweto and Alexandra, two black townships, often enough that they feel somewhat familiar to me.

It all intrigued me to keep turning the pages.

I was also taken with Patricia Noah – I liked her as a character. She was so different from what I thought she would be. I was intrigued to know how she came to be a mother of a mixed race child, and I was surprised at her – in a good way. If I saw her in the street, I would likely have preconceived ideas of who she is and, as the story unfolded, I realized I would be desperately wrong.

Which key ingredient of memoir writing stood out the most for me?

When we write, we need to take our reader on a journey somewhere – and Trevor Noah took me where I couldn’t go on my own – into the black township of Alexandra (Alex), or as he said, the Gomorrah of townships. And, yet, he dealt with it in such a way that he made me sympathetic to the people who live there; he made the people who live there real to me. He made me want to go there, meet them and get to know them. But more than that, he caused me to see the young men who beg at traffic lights or offer to wash your windscreen or hound you to buy something while waiting for the lights to change with different eyes. Not necessarily with more trusting eyes, but certainly with more compassionate eyes.

What did I learn? How has it added to my life?

I was struck by Trevor Noah’s profound statements and observations on life.

The first is Trevor Noah’s comment that wealth isn’t as much about money as it is about the options and choices it affords you. This resonates with my own observation which I discuss in my memoir When God Says No.

Trevor Noah raises the issue that giving people options to help break their poverty cycle isn’t so much about just teaching the poor to fish, it is also about supplying them with the fishing rod so that they can fish.

The second observation is Trevor Noah’s comment about crime. Having dabbled in petty crime himself, he knows of which he speaks. He describes the options that crime gives the poor – options that the government and, may I add, other organizations and people, don’t give. Both observations speak to my experience of coming to see for myself how few options the poor have.

In my memoir When God Says No, I write of attending to my mother when she was ill at the Jo’burg General Hospital, rather than in a private clinic, and how that experience opened my eyes to what life is like for those who don’t have options, and how they have to contend with what they are given – or not given for that matter.

It impacted me so that my husband and I made a personal commitment to alleviating poverty by helping to give the poor the gift of choice. We support a micro-lending organization in South Africa called Phakamani Foundation, an organization that gives loans and business training to impoverished women. Essentially, equipping them with that fishing rod Trevor Noah says is so needed to help the poor break out of the poverty cycle, and giving them them choices, including to not participate in crime, even at the most elementary level.

The third observation from Trevor Noah is his comment that it is not race that defines us but language. The book is worth reading to unpack this comment alone.

Although he doesn’t look like me race-wise, Trevor Noah sounds like me and he presents like me. He has an educated English-speaking South African accent which would position him as at least middle-class. And so, despite his race, I thought he was like me. This expectation of mine illustrates his point exactly.

I was surprised to read that Trevor Noah grew up poor. Although English may be both our first language, it was a deliberate choice by his Xhosa mother to raise her son speaking English first. Trevor Noah has Xhosa as his second mother-tongue language, and he identifies himself as black, not colored or mixed race. I don’t have a second mother-tongue and I am white all the way.

And so any kinship I feel I may have with him based on our language and accent is an illusion. We are not alike. We have similarities and commonalities: being South African, growing up on the East Rand albeit on different ends, attending at Rosebank Union Church, and now living as ex-pats in North America, but that is where it ends.

Or does it?

In Born a Crime Trevor Noah shows how segregating on race lines, religious lines, language lines or any other lines causes suspicion and hatred of the other. We are all people and we have more in common than we think. We all want to have a good life if we can. We want to know our family and to be known by our family. We want to be able to choose, and we want to be chosen. We want to be included and to not live as outsiders. We want to belong and not just fit in. We want to be understood. We want to be loved for who we are, and we want to know and love ourselves.

And in that, we have much in common.

Trevor Noah writes how segregation and hatred of others and of self, one of the difficult themes of this book, undoes all of that.

This book may entertain but its greater asset is the depth of insight that it offers the reader.

What question did the book not answer?

Born a Crime doesn’t answer my burning question: how did Trevor Noah get from there to here, from Alex to LA, or New York City or wherever he finds himself now on the world stage?

But it did give me some window into how his life equipped him to become a master comedian with identities across the racial spectrum, with different accents and the ability to speak various languages. It is the positive outcome of a difficult experience in his life – the search to find his place of belonging in life and society. It is a search we all have but it was a particularly poignant one for Trevor Noah.

What reaction did this book stir in me?

Homesickness - and not the homesickness for South African foods like koeksisters, or pap and boerewors with tomatiesaus. Not even for the African sunsets or the bush. But rather, surprisingly, for the complexities that are part of the fabric of South Africa – the same complexities that have worn me down in the past and caused me to emigrate.

I can best describe my relationship with South Africa as a dysfunctional love relationship. One where there is deep love but, because of the dysfunctionality in both, it seems doomed from the start. But you live with the eternal longing that it will get better, and that there is hope when it all seems quite hopeless, because the bad isn’t so bad – until it gets to be terrible. Perhaps a little like the marriage of Trevor Noah’s mother to his step-father.

Trevor Noah gives his mother the final word in his memoir. And rightly so.

A strong character with indomitable presence, Patricia Noah reminds us that, when everything seems lost and beyond being redeemed, when we are staring down the barrel of a gun, whether metaphorically or literally, we cannot ignore or underestimate the power of prayer.

This book is most definitely worth the read, profanities and all.

It gets 4 stars out of 5. I strongly recommend it.

Are you ready to write your own life story? Read about the healing power of our stories in these blog posts:

The Healing Power of our Stories

Write a Memoir and Find your Voice

Gift Yourself, Write a Memoir

You can find my three most recent blog posts right here.

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2 comments

  • Brenda

    Thank you, Allison. Enjoy! It is a great read. I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

  • Allison Ramirez

    This is such a wonderful review Brenda.
    I have the book in my hands and after reading this I am so looking forward to it.

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