Book review: Trevor Noah writes about his difficult childhood in apartheid South Africa
The immensely popular host of “The Daily Show” on American network Comedy Central may come across as a funny and startled character but Trevor Noah’s compelling memoir presents a troubled look at life in South Africa under apartheid and is a classic tribute to his mother.
For those who have followed the author’s stand-up comedy acts on television, some episodes that find mention in the book may be familiar. But his memories in the book are not fine-tuned to meet the expectations of television viewers and as such they are more raw, original and appealing to the readers.
In his memoir, Noah takes his readers on a journey to his childhood, being born “a crime” in apartheid South Africa. He reflects on being “half-white, half-black” in a country where his birth “violated any number of laws, statutes and regulations”. Noah was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison.
The author’s memoir is no comedy like his stand-up acts; it shows the depression and sorrow of what growing up meant for him. He recalls that “the only time I could be with my father was indoors” and that he missed out on a lot of things that he wished to be true during those days.
“If we left the house, he’d have to walk across the street from us,” he writes about his father, but it was equally dangerous even for this light-skinned child to walk with his mother. “She would hold my hand or carry me, but if the police showed up she would have to drop me and pretend I wasn’t hers”.
He didn’t have any friends while growing up as a child and spent most of his time inside the house. “I didn’t know any kids besides my cousins,” he recalls but adds, “I wasn’t a lonely kid -- I was good at being alone.” He, therefore, read a lot of books, played with “a toy” that he had and made up “imaginary worlds” in which he lived.
This memoir that initially appears to be a simple story of growing up in South Africa under apartheid is also the story of the mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself. More than that, it is the story of Noah’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse.
Some anecdotes that he shares of his mother in the memoir, particularly his reflections on things that she told him, are so deep that they will stay with you.
“Abel (his father) wanted a traditional marriage with a traditional wife. For a long time I wondered why he ever married a woman like my mom in the first place, as she was the opposite of that in every way. If he wanted a woman to bow to him, there were plenty of girls back in Tzaneen being raised solely for that purpose. The way my mother always explained it, the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. “He’s like an exotic bird collector,” she said. “He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage,” Noah writes.
The mother-son relationship was all he had after his father moved back to Switzerland.
“There was no stepfather in the picture yet, no baby brother crying in the night. It was me and her, alone. There was this sense of the two of us embarking on a grand adventure. She’d say things to me like, ‘It’s you and me against the world.’ I understood even from an early age that we weren’t just mother and son. We were a team,” he mentions.
The best thing about this memoir is the fact that Trevor Noah has a real story to tell – one that is both personal and appealing to readers. On the flip side though, the 288-page long memoir (India edition) is printed in too small a font making it quite a task to read.