Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

I just toured Soweto where Trevor Noah grew up in South Africa. Soweto has 50 plus townships where blacks, Indians, and colored people were displaced or forced to live during Apartheid. Nobel Peace prize winners Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu lived on the same block in Soweto and its face has changed over the years reflecting a growing black middle class. Trevor's raw look growing up in post-apartheid Soweto in the 1990s, whose population is over 1 million today, is riveting.

"Born a crime" is how he describes his birth as it was illegal for a white man and black woman to be together in the 1980s. His Swiss dad and Xhosa mom didn't marry when he was conceived, but even then his life was dangerous because of his light skin. He didn't know anyone else whose heritage was of black-and-white descent making unique situations for him and his mom. If he was with his dad, his mother had to walk on the other side of the road. Or if his mother was walking with him and the police came by she'd have to drop his hand and pretend he wasn't her child or else she would be accused of kidnapping a white person's baby.

The overarching theme in Trevor's book is honoring the tenacity, cleverness, and education his mother gave him growing up during a time when there were not many opportunities for South African blacks. He gives personal details interspersed with nonfiction facts that are helpful in understanding the current climate and culture in South Africa. For instance, I'm baffled as a foreigner by the crazy minibus taxi drivers that overload their vans with passengers and drive through lights, drive on sidewalks, drive on walkings paths, drive through fields, stop anywhere they want to pick up passengers, block lanes, and seem to pride themselves in their maniacal driving. In six months I've seen them almost hit a person walking as they spun out of control on the shoulder, tip a van over on its side driving too fast on a roundabout, and go over an embankment trying to pass another van, to name a few. There has been a turf war too, where drivers from two groups shot and killed each other because one group was taking what others considered their routes. Turf wars are common and Trevor describes this hell-on-wheels, gang-like transportation system that most of the population uses to get to and from work. His harrowing experience in one of these taxis and getting tossed out of it while it was moving as a nine-year-old is one of many stories that will keep you flipping the pages.

Trevor's experience in different schools shows the variety of learning experiences that influenced him and his gift with languages that allowed him to be liked by different groups of people, while at the same time, remain an outcast. I didn't understand when he wrote about the Bantu education system and had to look that up on my own. Basically, the 1953 Bantu education act extended Apartheid to black schools and implemented an inferior and racist education system that denied black children the same educational opportunities as white children.

The chapters about Trevor's abusive stepfather shooting his mother execution style and threatening others is frightening in its portrayal of the violence Trevor dealt with in his life. It's amazing that his mom survived her gunshot wounds and joked about it with Trevor in the hospital. The mix of humor and seriousness helps balance the dark spots and makes for an engrossing read. While I enjoyed the book I did think the pacing was off. The end felt rushed and too much time covered leaving me with questions.

Also, some parts of the plot are not always in context and the last chapter repeats a beginning part, but none of this takes away from an easy-to-read authentic tale. In the last chapter, I wasn't quite sure if the mom was engaged. And did others in the group get shot at like her fiance? It sounded like it. His brothers and his relationship with them are not always clear and Isaac's age conflicts with the age Trevor says his mom was at this time. The editing seemed sloppy in parts. But these are minor details. The excellent character development of Trevor's stepfather's dual sides of being charming and violent show a complex person. The relationship with his biological dad is heartwarming and heartbreaking. Many things are done well such as how there was no recourse for his mother with the police and how the justice system didn't serve her.  Trevor's love for his mom holds the plot together giving it cohesiveness even if the context is uneven. I hope he pens another book explaining his journey to the US and breaking into national media.

4 Smileys

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