Child­hood mem­o­ries coloured by apartheid

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James McNa­mara

When Trevor Noah, a 31-year-old South African co­me­dian, re­placed Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion view­ers did a bit of an “eh, what?”.

It’s hard to over­state Stewart’s im­pact and cul­tural rel­e­vance af­ter 16 years as the US’s satirist-in-chief. Noah’s ap­point­ment was like a promis­ing all-rounder from the sub­ur­ban un­der-14s be­ing se­lected to cap­tain the Aus­tralian cricket team. Or a re­al­ity TV host be­ing elected pres­i­dent of the US.

But while I’ve missed Stewart, I’ve been cheered by Noah’s jokey, well-de­liv­ered be­muse­ment at po­lit­i­cal id­iocy. I con­fess, how­ever, to scep­ti­cism when I saw the me­dia re­lease for Noah’s book Born a Crime. “Ah,” I thought, “the new star’s pub­lisher, slap­ping some blog posts be­tween two cov­ers and pay­ing off a hol­i­day house.”

Hap­pily, I was wrong. Born a Crime isn’t the pre­ma­ture ca­reer mem­oir I feared but an ex­cel­lent col­lec­tion of es­says about grow­ing up in apartheid South Africa. It feels, in a way, like an in­tro­duc­tion to his au­di­ence, a gen­teel re­but­tal of any as­ser­tion that he fell, as the po­ets say, “arse back­wards” into one of Amer­ica’s most pres­ti­gious TV jobs. And it es­tab­lishes Noah — quite sep­a­rately from his com­edy work — as a lit­er­ary writer.

Born to a black mother and white fa­ther in 1984, Noah was, as the ti­tle says, lit­er­ally a crime. South Africa was strictly seg­re­gated, with “whites”, “In­di­ans”, “coloureds” and “blacks” forced apart. One “of the worst crimes you [could] com­mit was hav­ing sex­ual re­la­tions with a per­son of an­other race”, Noah writes. “Need­less to say, my par­ents com­mit­ted that.”

As an “il­le­gal” “mixed” boy with a dif­fer­ent skin colour to his par­ents, he couldn’t be seen in the street with ei­ther of them: “the gov­ern­ment could come in, strip your par­ents of cus­tody, haul you off to an or­phan­age”. Sim­i­larly, he had to hide his ex­is­tence when vis­it­ing his ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents in the black town­ship of Soweto.

That led to a com­plex racial and cul­tural iden­tity. He ap­peared “coloured” and iden­ti­fied as “black”, but nei­ther group ac­cepted him, some­thing that de­fined Noah’s so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence from his first day of school un­til adult­hood. “I be­came,” he writes, “a chameleon. My colour didn’t change, but I could change your per­cep­tion of my colour.”

Racist poli­cies cre­ated ab­ject poverty in non­white com­mu­ni­ties. Noah and his mother sur­vived on meat scraps sold for dogs and marogo, “a kind of wild spinach, cooked with cater­pil­lars”. His fam­ily spent a year liv­ing in his step­fa­ther’s fail­ing garage: “sleep in some car, wake up, wash in a jan­i­tor sink … brush my hair in the rearview mir­ror of a Toy­ota, and try to get dressed with­out oil and grease get­ting all over my school clothes”.

To save petrol, Noah’s mother cut the en­gine while in traf­fic, mak­ing him push as they inched for­ward. Hol­i­days were spent in his grand­mother’s two-room shack, where the fam­ily slept side by side on the floor. “There was no in­door run­ning wa­ter, just one com­mu­nal out­door faucet and one out­door toi­let that ev­ery­one shared for six or seven houses.” Un­able to af­ford univer­sity when he fin­ished school, Noah’s “gap year” was in the “hood”, sell­ing pi­rated CDs and work­ing as a cheer­ful pay­day loan hus­tler.

Noah por­trays South Africa with nu­ance, alive to the daz­zle of sense and smell. And he re­counts the events that shaped his child­hood with em­pa­thy, cu­rios­ity and a sharp sense of so­cial jus­tice. But the book’s core is his re­la­tion­ship with his mother, Pa­tri­cia. Fiercely in­de­pen­dent, deeply re­li­gious, she raised Noah “as if there were no lim­i­ta­tions”, re­fus­ing to be “bound by ridicu­lous ideas of what black peo­ple couldn’t or shouldn’t do”.

Her story is one of deep-felt and hard-fought love for her “il­le­gal” son. But Noah didn’t make life easy: “she was al­ways chas­ing me to kick my ass … We had a very Tom and Jerry re­la­tion­ship, me and my mom. She was the strict dis­ci­plinar­ian; I was naughty as shit.”

His rep­u­ta­tion as a “prankster” in­cluded ac­ci­den­tally burn­ing down a house and a week in jail. Pa­tri­cia’s pun­ish­ments were hard, but came from love and fear: “When I beat you, I’m try­ing to save you. When [the po­lice] beat you, they’re try­ing to kill you.” This mother-son re­la­tion­ship an­i­mates the book, and Pa­tri­cia’s do­mes­tic abuse by Noah’s step­fa­ther makes for a shock­ing and poignant con­clu­sion.

While funny in places, Noah’s book isn’t a long stand-up set or a co­me­dian’s mem­oir (it barely touches on his ca­reer). Rather, Born a Crime is a skil­ful com­ing-of-age story that es­tab­lishes Noah as a fine lit­er­ary es­say­ist. As Clive James did so well, Noah has be­gun to strad­dle late night and lit­er­ary ca­reers. That’s no easy feat. is a Los An­ge­les-based screen­writer and critic.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.