What I learned from Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime”

If you asked me what I am, I’d probably say, “I’m a writer.” I spend my days crafting articles and stories for my day job, have a long history of journalistic writing on my resume, and actively seek out opportunities to find my unique perspective as a writer. However, would I call myself a good writer? It’s hard to know when that moment comes. How do you know if you’re good *enough*?

People have always told me that being a great writer starts with reading as much as possible. I’ve taken this advice to heart, which means you can find me boarding the bus with a new novel every week. When I started reading “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah. Although he is probably known for his comedic takes on current events, it’s clear that Trevor’s storytelling skills are also at work here.

Clips from The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

I had to chase after each sentence and catch my breath. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to keep track of the stories in my own life, all in the hopes of writing a memoir as eloquent and powerful as this one.

This book is a window and a mirror for me — a window, or new perspective, of life under apartheid, but also a mirror into the familiar challenges of being stuck between two identities. Perhaps I’m not navigating long, awkward, occasionally tragic, and frequently humiliating affairs of the heart, but I understand the challenges of navigating this world as a queer person of color.

I write down my favorite sentences on sticky notes and put them up all around my office or I’ll write it in the margins of my favorite notebook. If I’m feeling so committed, I’ll put it on the letterboard in my room. There’s one sentence that has stayed with me:

If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind.

Most of Trevor’s book is an invitation to free your mind. Trevor invites you into his life in South Africa during apartheid.

“The thing Africans don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation. The Nazis kept meticulous records, took pictures, made films. And that’s what it really comes down to. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. Six million people killed. We can all look at that number and be rightly horrified. But when you read through the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess” (195).

Trevor alsoreflects the way that history tells a very specific narrative, and people of color and their struggles are often overlooked.

“People love to say, ‘give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing” (190).

In the book, Trevor shares the story about how he finally makes enough money through his business of selling CDs, and the way it impacted his life. Spoiler alert- he spends a lot of it on McDonalds, something that had a lot of appeal because of its name as an American chain.

“I became a chameleon. 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 … Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you” (56).

Trevor learned to speak several African languages like Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, and English. He would echo the languages he heard around them, so people would take him as a part of their tribe. This meant that Trevor could bridge race rap through language. This chapter is an interesting commentary about how we use language to form a sense of community or label someone else as different. This was magnified in apartheid, which divided black people to separate them physically and through language.

“I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in life, any choice that I’ve made. But I’m consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn’t say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection.

But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to. ‘What if…’ ‘If only…’ ‘I wonder what would have…’ You will never, never know, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days.”

If you’re interested in reading more of Trevor’s story, find it on Amazon, your local library, or the bookstore. It’s definitely one of my favorite books of all time. ’Til next time!

Like what you’re reading? Check out a few other things I’ve written:

Resources for crafting, editing, and publishing a story

I need more than pride flags and rainbow pins to feel represented

Writer at Microsoft | Human Centered Design and Engineering Alumna | Lifting as I climb | www.aleenahansari.com