JTO Book Club: Born a Crime



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


For all JTO Book Club updates check out the designated “highlight” on my Instagram page (here).



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.

SHOWHIDE Comments (37)
  1. Your writing style is very intriguing. I admire Trevor as a political philanthropist and comedian. But now I am about to purchase this book based on your overview. Well done.

  2. Your writing style is very intriguing. I admire Trevor as a political philanthropist and comedian. But now I am about to purchase this book based on your overview. Great job.

  3. Born A Crime, whewwww! this was a very beautiful read. Its the kind of book that draws you into the story. For me it is divided into two aspects; the historical side (which focused on the Apartheid regime of South Africa) and he personal recount of the writers life from childhood, more in relation to how he was socialized by his mother and his society by virtue of being a mixed child born during the Apartheid era. It really puts the reader into the position Trevor position.

    Above all, I learnt some principles like “the black tax” and i corroborated the fact that the “religious urge” is not only a Nigerian problem, its African.

  4. Born a Crime was really a great read for me. Love Love Love it! I particularly loved its depth, how it made me laugh and how it sucks you into it’s reality.
    It’s funny howo living your life as a child and growing up to a new narrative of what that phase of your life really meant all along. Beautiful!
    I will like to also commend your writing. It is so descriptive with the highlights of what the book is truly about and how exceptional Trevor Noah is. Well done ??.

    1. Hi Yemisi! Thank you! It had me in fits of laughter too – so glad to hear you enjoyed it as much as I did.

  5. Born A Crime was the first book I read in a while after a season of not reading not-school-books and boy, was it a good read. I respect Trevor Noah even more now, knowing that he turned the lemons life gave him into mouth-watering lemonade. At the centre of all the themes of the book was the mother-and-son relationship portrayed in the most realistic way. I see it as a resemblance to our lives, that through it all we have a support system in our mothers.
    Man, that ending though! It made me cry and it made me laugh. Thank you for this piece you wrote.
    I’m a big JTO fan btw, you come out consistently with interesting content, more grease to your elbow.

    1. Hi Ada, thanks so much for your comment! Yes, the mother/son relationship is so relatable in many ways and really forms as the foundation for Noah’s tale.

  6. My favourite book right now is ” i cant make this up” by kelvin Hart. The book is about his story and journey to sucess. It was extremely inspiring because most times we think successful people just become successful without any obstacles but through that book i understood that if you want to be successful and great you have to fail and fail but you must be ready to give it another shot with a positive attitude.

  7. Hey.

    I read Born a Crime around November or December last year. I admire the fact that Trevor Noah, though relatively young, has already managed to document the events that took him to where he is today. While most African stars are either too lazy or too ignorant to put their story on paper, it’s encouraging to see someone of his status take the time out to let the world know what’s it’s like to come from Africa and to live in South Africa during one of the worst eras of legalized racism – apartheid. There were two things I picked from the book.

    First, while one’s race might lead to segregation and prejudice, language is a significant factor that separates us as humans. Trevor inferred that if you speak another person’s language, you are more likely to be accepted into the person’s group even if you belong to another race. Although this makes rational sense, it had never really occurred to me that language (or one’s accent) carries that amount of importance. The book shows that even within Africa, the multiple languages we speak stop us from uniting as one. I guess that’s why we still have the intertribal beef we see in Nigeria (Hausa vs. Igbo vs. Yoruba). Well, I choose to look at this insight from the positive side: people of other races or tribes are more likely to be open to me if I learn to speak their language. So, I’m going to start trying to learn people’s languages. ?

    Second, I’m inspired by his story overall…..how he became a global figure. I’ve been watching his standups, and, at first glance, one would think Trevor is from a wealthy background with wealthy parents. But hearing stories of how he had to pirate CDs, pawn accessories, steal stuff, face an abusive step-father, etc. inspires me to do more. I believe his story should encourage everyone. If Trevor could make it out of the ghetto where he used to sell bootlegged CDs with his friends, so can we!

    With all that said, I’m not sure the closing was strong. Maybe he could have ended it with a strong message to his intended readers (even though I think he was trying to avoid targeting a specific group). Maybe he could have told us how his mum is currently doing. Perhaps he could have ended it by outlining his future ambitions. Maybe I’m just being silly and expecting too much from him. Also, I hate the fact that he leaves many of his stories hanging without letting us know what happened at the end. For instance, I’d like to know if he went back to apologize to the Jewish School about the Hitler chant. I’d also like to know what happened to his beautiful prom date. In spite of these flaws, I think the book is spectacular, sincere, and funny. I strongly recommend it to anyone that likes reading motivational books or autobiographies.

    By the way, I’m just sharing my thoughts on the book. I don’t mind winning ? but I don’t want another copy of the ….plus I stay in Canada. I DO want to be part of your book club. Been longing for an opportunity to share ideas with folks around the world.


    1. Hi Moby! Thank you so much for your comment!

      The point you raised about Noah discussing language/language barriers acting as social barriers was really interesting to consider. It was fascinating to see how Noah was able to navigate various racial and social groups by adapting to their means of communication – their language. I think this quote sums it up perfectly:

      “Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says “We’re the same.” A language barrier says “We’re different.”

      And regarding the ending: Yes, Noah definitely leaves a lot of his anecdotes open-ended. I ended the book like, “what happens to Patricia? ahhh!!” But maybe this forms an intended part of our reading experience – the fact that we only find out what he wants to reveal.

      Welcome to the JTO Book Club and see you for the February edition!

  8. I haven’t read this book yet but I love the author. I love how he uses humor to tell very serious stories of the things happening in this world. I don’t have a particular favorite book but one of my favorite authors is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I also respect her views on feminism in today’s world.

  9. Born a Crime is currently my most favorite memoir. Trevor is such a terrific writer that it felt like I was his shadow while he was living those experiences.
    It’s exciting to know we share the same interest in books.
    For someone who has read the book twice, you did a very good job by not leaving any spoilers. I can’t say same for the comments. If you haven’t read the book, please don’t read the comments! When I read book reviews or watch trailers, I try not to read the comments.

    Finally, you are a terrific writer. I am already excited to see what you bring next. I was snuggled under my duvet in this extremely cold Chicago weather reading Walking with Shadow by Jude dibia until I got distracted by a notification from IG and now I am here LOL.

    1. Haha! Yes, there are definitely spoilers here in the comment section so beware.

      Thank you so much and have added ‘Walking with Shadow’ to the JTO Book Club list.

  10. One thing that struck me about Trevor Noah’s story is the portion where he had to “hustle” selling scrap to make a living and at one point even steal a camera. I mean this was a brilliant boy by all accounts but the system just made it so that he had to resort to that type of lifestyle.
    Currently reading Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” and here too there’s evidence of how a society can crush the dreams of brilliant individuals and leave them lowering their standards and asking less and less and eventually very little out of life. (In relation to her Paternal Grandfather’s story)

    1. Thanks for your comment Crystal! ‘Becoming’ is definitely an option to be February’s focus for the JTO Book Club.

      The portion of the book where Noah describes his illicit life as a payday lender/ “hustler” was really compelling. It highlighted how much personal behaviour can be altered by one’s surroundings.

  11. I haven’t read Trevor Noah(Born a crime) buh I have heard the author name several times. I I really like Adichie purple hibiscus and half a yellow sun because I could easily relate to the society, setting etc

  12. Oh God JT I was so excited you picked this book and I couldn’t wait to read your review. It’s amazing. I absolutely loved how much you tried to not give the other newbies spoilers, lol.
    And that part about defecating in the kitchen was quite hilarious ? that’s my take away quote “everybody shits, even the pope shits, he even mentioned the Queen of England, Lmao??
    Honestly I was really hoping you’ll say something about his mom Patricia and you did! I remember thinking “damn! What a daring and resilient woman” from the very beginning, she was always defying the odds, thankfully, I mean, look what we got out of it, one of the greatest comedians in the world. Being different actually helps one to understand their uniqueness and pursue a purpose, I think that was great for Noah.
    But ultimately the societal marginalization that women have to suffer, it finds us one way or another, crippling you no matter how strong you may be. I remember the police station report story and how the men handled the issue, it made my skin crawl while I was reading it. She must have felt so helpless, being with a toddler and all. Abuse has always been a thing in African society and I hope we see less of it each day as we fight for our equality.
    Don’t get me started on racism, or Apatheid. I won’t stop. But your take away quote says it all.

    I hope I win a copy for myself because I read it last year on my iBook, I can’t reload it from my iCloud anymore which is sad because i really enjoy reading a book I love over and over again so I’ll need one for my library. Please pick me. Thank you.

    1. Hi Zainab – thanks so much for your comment!

      Patricia is such a boss and I love how much Trevor owes who he is to what she taught him growing up. But yes, I was so horrified with how her abuse was responded to by the police. It’s an issue so many women face to this day. The more we openly talk about it and treat it for what it is – abuse – the more situations can hopefully change.

  13. The love i have for the book and the writer is not explainable. I don’t think i will ever find the right words to explain how this book touched me and how it made me to see things in the world. I just love the book.

  14. I love this book reading it was like going on a rollercoaster it had so many ups and downs I cried laughed and cringed when I read it. It is different from any other biography I have read. Something I would like to take out from the book is how the government treated the japanese and chinese people they considered the chinese people POC (people of colour) while they considered the japanese white why? because japanese people had business with them it just shows that racism isn’t fear of people different from you its a way to marginalized and separate people that you will benefit from and those who you think will inconvenience you (aka those whose land you took away).

    1. Hi Anu! ‘Born a Crime’ is a rare type of book that can make you laugh and cry in equal parts. As someone who almost exclusively reads dramatic fiction, it made me see how thrilling and insightful autobiographies can be.

      Also, the point you made on Japanese vs Chinese categorisation is so spot on. Racist structures are used for control because if you base the same concept on racial superiority vs inferiority it makes zero sense.

      Thank you for commenting :)

  15. I loved every bit of the time I spent reading Born a crime. It was pretty insightful to the way that people survived the post-apartheid period. I loved Patricia Noah’s character and the fierceness and strong will. It was definitely something to take home.
    My favourite quote is “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes heart.”…”I understand that you have a culture and that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being”. Love, love, love it because it is soo true.

    Catching up on Half of a Yellow Sun right now since I had not read it before the last review. Looking forward to February’s pick.?

    1. Hi Tomiwa! Thanks for your comment.

      I’m definitely a new member of the Patricia Noah fan club, and the quote you included was one of my favourites from the book. I love how Noah unravels that human connection is formed from our understanding of each other i.e. the ability to communicate.

      I hope you enjoy reading the Half of a Yellow Sun post and the February pick will be announced soon :)

  16. Born a crime” it is probably my favorite book right now. I have never met someone write something so painful but make it so funny. It reminded me of growing up in Nigeria and lord do i miss it? Also shines a lot on being black in the US.
    My favorite quote was “Revenge truly is sweet. It takes you to a dark,but,man,it satisfies a thirst” and the one about speaking someone’s language to them…

    I’m reading pachinko right now and it is a beautiful read and i recommend it for February read. I read born a crime on iBook and i will love a hard copy so I’m your girl for that give away ??

    1. Hi Georgina, thank you for recommending Pachinko – it’s been added to the JTO Book Club list!

      Yes, I love that quote on revenge too! Noah’s painstaking honesty is what makes him so funny at times – he says what we’re all thinking but afraid to say…

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