Wednesday, March 7, 2018

March Book Review Club--BORN A CRIME

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@Barrie Summy

Hello. It's supposed to be almost spring but Maine has a nor'easter bearing down on us that could give us 18 inches of snow. I think the storm will have wreaked havoc for much of the East, kinda like the one we had a few days ago. Feel like putting your sense of grievance in perspective, and laughing your head off at the same time? Read on. 

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By Trevor Noah
Spiegel & Grau, 2016

In 1984, when South Africa’s apartheid regime was in full clamp-down, a spirited young Xhosa woman called Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah decided she wanted to have a baby with the guy down the hall, a Swiss/German named Robert. This was a crime that could send both of them to prison and their baby to an orphanage. She went ahead and did it anyway.

The baby turned out to be comedian Trevor Noah, now the anchor of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. He opens his memoir with a reproduction of the 1927 Immorality Act, which made “carnal intercourse” illegal between a European and a “native.” 

Later, he describes walking down the street with his mother at age six, his father across the street pretending he didn’t know them. Because he was light-skinned, his mother had to pretend she was his nursemaid when they were out in public.

There were perks, though. When Trevor and his mom were staying in Soweto with her mother, Trevor did something “naughty” (a big word in his life) for which his cousins were punished but he was not. “I don’t know how to hit a white child,” his grandmother explained.

He never fit in anywhere: at school with the white kids or even with the “colored” kids (Indian and other nonwhite, non-black races) who looked most like him.  

Noah’s remarkable mother helped him turn his oddity into an advantage. She made him speak English—the key to getting ahead in South Africa—but also Xhosa and Zulu and Sotho and Tswana and Afrikaans. Noah tended to walk on the wild side throughout his youth—“naughty” was putting it mildly—but if he was about to get beat up, he could disarm his attacker by unexpectedly speaking his language.

“I became a chameleon” he writes. “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.”

If you like your memoirs linear, this one will drive you nuts. It’s a collection of stories, jumping back and forth in time, about the funny, harrowing, weird, horrifying experience of growing up in South Africa and doing it as Trevor Noah. The writing is wonderful, as you’d expect, and Noah can’t help being funny, or at least wry, even when he’s telling you about the time his mom almost died. It’s a total page-turner.

The day five-year-old Trevor decided to avoid the rain-soaked outhouse and do his business on a newspaper in the kitchen—leading his female relatives to think the house is demon-infested—is comedic gold.

There’s anger under the comedy—how could there not be? And you’re always off balance, reading this book. Because it jumps around in time, you’re always stepping back and thinking, “Okay, so this was when they lived in that suburb, right?” That’s actually a good thing—this was not a childhood in which anyone should get comfy.

But possibly the weirdest thing about BORN A CRIME is the detachment of the author. We see him beaten, jailed, humiliated, and also triumphant, but none of it ever hits you in the heart and lungs. It’s entertaining as all get out, but you’re in no danger of weeping.

If you were going to survive this life and become Trevor Noah, I guess you’d have to be well armored.

(Dear FCC: I got this for my beloved for Christmas, or maybe his birthday, can’t remember which. They’re close together, which I believe I’ve told you before can be a real pain in the prat. I don’t recall getting any sympathy from you, though. )