Words by Temi Otedola
Photography by Joy Mumford
Original Thumbnail Art by Antonia Weishaupt
Before we dive into this month’s book, I wanted to say a huge thank you for the overwhelming response to the JTO Book Club’s inaugural blog post. When I kicked off the Book Club last month with ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ I didn’t know how many people were truly interested in a cyber community for book lovers. So, thank you. Every single comment was truly appreciated, and I’ll reply even more of your comments in this post!
If you need to catch up with the first blog post of the JTO Book Club, you can read it (here). Also, if you’re yet to read this month’s focus, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, don’t fret. There are minimal spoilers in this post, and you can still contribute anything relating to literature in the comment section. Let us know what you have recently enjoyed reading or what you think the February book focus should be. Every single comment is deeply appreciated and will help grow our burgeoning literary community!
Judging A Book By Its Cover…
(This new section will document my conjectures of the book or author prior to reading, I will also include any background information I think you should have before my personal analysis)
Trevor Noah has become a key figure of our social and political zeitgeist over the past few years. I think I first heard about Noah when there was a social media uproar after it was announced he would succeed Jon Stewart as the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. Noah was more than competent for his new job, so I boiled the Twitter indignation down to Jon Stewart being beloved by the American public i.e. the belief that no one could live up to him, and also, as usual, a nuanced racism. “How can a foreigner host the Daily Show?” “But he’s not even American, he’s from Africa”. Imagine having a mindset so localized that you believe commentary and humour should not cross global lines…
I also watched Noah’s comedy specials on Netflix which I found incredibly funny yet cerebral, a mode of comedy Hassan Minaj also does really well. So, because I knew Trevor Noah to be an intelligent, politically conscious, and funny guy, I predicted Born a Crime would be equally socially aware and comical, yet I had no idea how his life’s story would read.
You might think Noah acted prematurely in publishing an autobiography aged 31, but then you find out what an extraordinary life he has already squeezed into a few of decades. In Born a Crime: Stories from A South African Childhood, Noah details his early years growing up in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. Born a Crime doesn’t even touch on how he became a hugely successful media personality or his most recent experiences. It doesn’t have to. His childhood has more than enough incredulous anecdotes to comprise an entire lifetime. Some of his stories are so unbelievable that they read like fiction: his mother throws him out of a moving car, he defecates on his living room floor and has a friend called Hitler.
A lot of Born a Crime weaves Noah’s personal experiences with descriptions of what the systems of apartheid consisted of. Noah perfectly illustrates how comically illogical yet devastating, the structures of apartheid were. People A call somewhere home, People B take People A’s land and then decide how People A are allowed to live their lives. Seems logical.
Noah also breaks down the realities of living under apartheid as a black South African. He explains that apartheid controlled where you could live, how you could make a living and thus how much you could make, what your children were taught at school, and who you could love, marry, and procreate with. This final caveat is what made Noah a “crime”. His very existence was a visual and conspicuous refusal of what apartheid championed – the separation of black and white. This Swiss-South African hybrid formed Noah’s DNA, but it also confused his sense of identity and where he belonged, a question many of us including myself deal with.
It was shocking when Noah described how even his grandparents treated him better than his cousins solely based on his particular hue of brown. He may not have been then, but Noah’s writing is astutely self-aware of the various social advantages and disadvantages of growing up as a mixed-race South African. And even though apartheid ended when Noah was still a child, his descriptions of post-apartheid South Africa highlight how deep the structures of racism can be built within society and our own personal psyches.
The reader sees both Noah’s intelligence and his stubbornness blossom early. He reads as the most precocious of children, questioning authority and why irrational systems are accepted. He also has a prodigious business mind. From his booming tuck shop business, to his pirated CD empire, DJ Career, and pay-day lending hood operation, you see someone who had ambitious ideas in a relatively limited world. These childhood hustles undoubtedly prophesy the later success he would obtain as an adult.
A particularly funny theme in Born a Crime is Noah’s romantic escapades. He recounts his boyhood dating fails in a way that is so excruciatingly relatable that I found myself physically cringing and laughing when reading. His first prom experience was particularly disastrous. I say “experience”, yet he spent the entire night trying to convince his date to get out of the car. These accounts reminded me how disproportionately magnified things can be as a child. Although Noah had been chased by police and grown up as a “crime”, he still found the act of talking to girls frightening. If this doesn’t support the idea that all human response is relative, then I don’t know what does.
What I enjoyed most about Born a Crime was its focus on the relationship between mother and child. A relationship that is often strenuous, loving, tense, and absolute, all at the same time. Who else gives you the tough love you need just to prepare you for anything the world can throw at you? Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah is a formidable woman and this book serves as an ode to her. Who else thinks the world needs a Patricia Noah memoir? Her sheer resilience and refusal to let anyone dictate her life whilst living as a black woman in apartheid South Africa is beyond belief.
Her relationship with Noah’s step-father, Abel, was hard to read. A woman who had been proudly self-sufficient and independent of answerability albeit God, was economically and physically harmed by a man whose prime concern was to make sure their lives outwardly obeyed societal norms. This relationship highlighted many important issues relating to domestic abuse made even more cutting by the fact that Patricia Noah cannot be described as a “weak” woman. And then we see the reaction of the police or the lack of action. This “boys will be boys” response and the normalization of physical assault against women is still an issue to this day, and we see how domestic abuse can escalate to something even more sinister…
The ending of Born a Crime left me in utter shock. Although we had seen the signs of Abel’s destructive behaviour, I never expected for him to go as far as he did, and that may be the problem – we often choose to damper the signs instead of taking them as an indication that things could become even worse. (I’ll leave out any other details so there are no spoilers if you haven’t finished reading yet). It was equally alarming to find out that Abel walked away scot-free, facing no consequences for what he did. Yet this incident also lets us in on what can only be described as a miracle sprouting from a tragedy. Even when you can feel the pain of the story, Noah still manages to wrap the narrative in tenderness and laughter, and I think this is what makes him a truly expectational storyteller. You are able to laugh at the tragic, the absurd, and the bleak, and in some strange way, it numbs the sorrow.
Go ahead and share your thoughts, we’re all listening.
Temi’s Takeaway Quote:
“In any society built on institutionalized racism, race mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race mixing proves that races can mix, and in a lot of cases want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.”
– Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood
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G I V E A W A Y
Follow the below steps to win a copy of Born A Crime:
– Follow @jtofashion on Instagram (here).
– Like my latest Instagram photo.
– Comment below on this blog post stating: your thoughts on Born A Crime or what your favourite book is and why…
– Send me a DM stating that you have finished the following steps.
– I will post an Instagram Photo tagging the 3 winners so keep an eye out!
For postal reasons, the books can only be sent to addresses within the United Kingdom and Europe.