Stories in Progress: Colouring Outside the Lines
What’s the best way to get to know somebody? You spend time with them. I’ve followed Trevor Noah’s career for three years or so. Like many I first was introduced to him through his stand up comedy. If this was a real relationship, these would be our first conversations. These first conversations might have been in English but the language he used is humour. I watched more of his specials, clips of him as a correspondent on the Daily Show, to eventually hosting the Daily Show. I listened to podcasts he appeared on, watched interviews, and saw him perform live. From this exposure I felt like I understood how he views the world. One question, I never thought to ask was why does he view the world the way he does? After reading Noah’s new book, Born A Crime: Stories From a South American Childhood, the why, is the most important part.
In Born A Crime, Noah never tells the reader the step-by-step guide on how he became a stand-up comedian to host of the Daily Show. In fact, he never talks about his first set, stories about John Stewart, or what type of work environment he is trying to create now that he’s the show’s host. Instead, he writes about his childhood, from his first memories to moving out after high school during apartheid and a supposedly post-apartheid world of South Africa. Noah gives context before every chapter, explaining what apartheid was, how it affected the community, and the conditions that grew from it. The explanations never drown you but they present you with the right amount of weight and subtext as you’re reading the next chapter. He shares stories of stealing chocolates and booze and getting away with it, about his role in the social hierarchy of his schools, and lessons that he learns about love. Each chapter asks questions I would have never thought and they made me laugh, think, and cry in the process.
Trevor Noah is not the star of Born A Crime. That distinction goes to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. It is their relationship that drives the book and ties everything together. She is not only, the why, in his life but the who, what, where, when, and how. You see every side of her and everything that she means to Trevor. In most of the chapters it’s them arguing, some times of the form of business of letters, or Trevor just managing not to get caught red handed, but most of the time Trevor thinks that he has outsmarted her only for him to realize she will always be the more cunning one. Through it all, you understand they will never be pulled a part, from the moment he was born they are a team: Trevor and his mother, Patricia and her son.
Whenever I buy a book, I read it as soon as I get home. Some times I finish the book that day, others it will take a few more. I finished Born A Crime in two. In the two nights I was reading it, I FaceTime’d my girlfriend and read three or four chapters to her while she was doing homework in bed. I did this because I loved the book and wanted to indulge in it but I also love my girlfriend and I wanted her to experience the book as well. It was important to me that I shared his experience with her. Isn’t this the point of art? To not only make connections but be inspired to do so on your own and feel a need to expand your world by letting other worlds in. Not everyone can write or perform with the balance of humour and a proper weight of history as Noah does but it’s not like he was bestowed these skills one day. He learned it from his mother, his father, and his community. He was born into a world where it was illegal for him to exist, he was labeled a coloured person in a world that wanted to be split into black and white. He used language, humour, and music to move through worlds that didn’t look like him. And on the days where he did need to choose between black and white, some days he choose black: when he was in the school yard during recess. Other times he choose white: when he found himself in a holding cell awaiting trial. He understands that the world will force you to choose and on those days there isn’t a (R)ight answer, there’s only a right answer for you.
Born A Crime answers questions about Trevor Noah I didn’t know I had. They are answers you would probably never find in an interview. Peppering another person with questions isn’t getting to know them, it’s collecting facts. After spending a day with Trevor through his book you’ll not only understand him but the conditions and people who helped make him the person who he is today. And just because the book is done doesn’t mean the story is finished. I’m sure the stories in Born A Crime feel like a lifetime ago for Trevor but also feel like they happened yesterday. The things that he writes about are from his childhood and exist in the past but we never outrun our past. The only thing we do is carry it, share it with and listen to the past of others. Let the historians figure the rest out, hopefully they won’t forget the why.