*This Review contains spoilers*
I was waiting for the part that talks about him becoming famous, touring the world, getting Netflix comedy specials and arguably a left leaning late-night talk show. And I was infuriated that I had finished three fourth of the book and we were still talking about his childhood.
It was awful. I get it! Childhood in broken homes can be awful, let alone in an African poor home, during apartheid, for a racially mixed child. But let’s talk about how that led to you becoming super successful for once?
It wasn’t until after I finished the book, I went back and read the entire title: Born a crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.
It’s about his childhood. It’s a memoir. Alright, who told me it is an autobiography? Someone did! I swear! That’s why I literally have literary trust issues.
But in all seriousness, this book is entertaining, funny and educational. It makes its point, tickles you and then leaves you with an imagery or a thought so disturbing you feel bad for laughing at the previous line. These are all the ingredients you want in a book written by a comedian, or in a great comedy piece; push the boundaries, punch as far up as possible, make a great (preferably an unpopular) argument, but most importantly make the audience uncomfortable.
For instance, here is a direct quote from the book: “We didn’t eat chickens. We obliterated them. Our family was an archaeologist’s nightmare. We left no bones behind.”
It’s a silly joke, but sure to garner a few guffaws. It got a chuckle from me.
Now, here is another line in the same context: “We’d suck the marrow out of them. Sucking marrow out of bones is a skill poor people learn early.”
When he gives you a glimpse of his neighbourhood, it’s suddenly not that funny. If he said this in a comedy special people would laugh or ponder over it, but if he said those exact words at a TED talk, people would be squirming in their seats. And this book is a fine amalgamation of a well-crafted TED talk and a stand-up special.
I have read books by other comedians that are personal, dark and funny, but they aren’t half as any of those things as this book is. With most of work of this nature, there is always either more comedy and less truth or more truth and less comedy. There is almost never a perfect balance. This book (structurally, at least) nails that aspect. It gives you an educational (historical, factual, sometimes anecdotal) snippet of what each chapter is going to be about, then tells you a personal entertaining story expanding on those points.
I wish more books took this approach instead of shoving down the lectures in between the stories or worse, Asterisk-ing them. Seriously, does anyone read the asterisks tagged facts at the end of the book?
Thematically, Born a Crime takes you on an uncomfortable journey inside the world of racism, classism, societal segregation, apartheid and crime.
Did I miss something?
Also, misogyny & patriarchy (you know, the Internet’s darling words that are casually thrown at you in every argument).
Also, also, blind religion and faith, prison culture and lopsided legal systems, broken educational curriculum and economic deflation, bizarre belief systems, historical and factual ignorance, gender and cultural disparity, music piracy, financial scams, hood culture, and probably a dozen other subtle underlying themes that I was too stupid or ADHDed to capture.
In one of the chapters, Trevor talks about the types of racism; British racism against Africans (obviously!), but also afrikan racism. Here’s a direct quote from the book:
“The difference between British racism and Afrikaner racism was that at least the British gave the natives something to aspire to. If they could learn to speak correct English and dress in proper clothes, if they could Anglicize and civilize themselves, one day they might be welcome in society. The Afrikaners never gave us that option. British racism said, “If the monkey can walk like a man and talk like a man, then perhaps he is a man.” Afrikaner racism said, “Why give a book to a monkey?”
Then he goes on to talk about how different Asian groups were discriminated against each other. Chinese were considered blacks, because there weren’t enough of them, but then Japanese were considered as white, because the South African government wanted to keep good relations with Japan.
If you thought that was bizarre, then here’s another shocker. People who weren’t obviously white by appearance had to go through something called a ‘Pencil Test’. If the pencil that went in your hair, fell out, you were considered white. If it stayed inside, you were colored!
He also mentions how colored people aspired to be white all their life, until Nelson Mandela came through and shifted the paradigm and suddenly, blacks were the authority and they were more desirable. But because colored people weren’t white people, they were suddenly treated worse than black people.
And in all this, Trevor’s mother is the central character.
But Trevor is the central character of the book!
Well he is, but around his mom his character is less entertaining and not that powerful. Let’s just say if they were sharing the same screen in a movie, his mom’s character would have a better screen presence and Trevor would be a fine narrator.
His mother is deeply religious, funny, smart and courageous to the bone, defying all odd and norms of the society. Though she is flawed, she has her own rationale for what she does and she is extremely likeable for those exact reasons.
And although there are many villains in these stories, the one that is the most scarring is Trevor’s stepdad, who is a brilliant mechanic, has anger issues, is incredibly violent, has a drinking problem and horrible business ethics. All those things in one human being, what else do you need to make him more menacing?
Oh, yeah! My bad. A gun!
He buys a gun and shoots his mother for disrespecting her. Then he tries to kill himself, but doesn’t.
His mother however survives the headshot because she has faith in Jesus. Doctors think it’s a miracle, because he shot her once in her ass and once in her head (as you do!). The bullet in the ass was a waste and the second bullet went through the back of her head and came out on the other side, missing the brain, was also, technically, a waste.
She was in ICU for some time then she was back to work in seven days!
Seven days? After being shot in the head? Cool Story, bro!
Now, as a fan of this book, I do want to believe in these incidents, but as a reader, I am highly sceptical of the actual truth. How much of it was bent in order to make this book a success? How much was it Trevor’s own memory and how much of it was a PR input? I have some questions, that would never be answered.
Anyway, here’s the thing though, even if that was exaggerated, I wouldn’t hold a forged and fictional ending against what this book actually represents.
It’s not just a collection of short stories. These are vignettes of someone’s childhood in a very disturbing and clueless world. Of someone who was born a crime, who committed crimes, grew up in a crime infected neighbourhood and still made it.
That’s inspiring! And these stories, however untrue, need to be told and re-told.
Yeah it’s a mystery, how he did what he did and still made it. From selling pirated CDs and hosting neighbourhood shows, he suddenly started touring the world and became famous?
How did he do that?
As much as I enjoyed his childhood struggles, I would want to know how did he crack the code? There are parts missing to that overall puzzle. Educational aspects aside, these are some things that makes me question the authenticity of this book. Else it’s a 5 star from me.
2 thoughts on “Not Really a Review: Born A Crime: Childhood from a South African Childhood”
Excellent review. This probably wasn’t a book I would have read, but your review makes me want to. Maybe in his next book he’ll talk about how he got where he is.
A very entertaining review, I would be intrigued to read this book and as life is stranger than fiction perhaps every word is true!