Born a Crime

Confession – I read Trevor Noah’s memoir as much for his story as well as a way for me to study memoir structure. It’s something I am incredibly curious about – how do other authors determine how to best organize their memoir? It’s something I’m trying to figure out as I write my memoir. 

But after reading Mr. Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, I am just in awe.

And not just by the structure of Mr. Noah’s book, including the historical context for his childhood. Not just for giving me a peek into a world, a lifestyle, a culture I had limited knowledge of. 

I’m also in awe of Mr. Noah. And his powerhouse mother. 

If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. (A few friends have told me they enjoyed the audio version which is read by Mr. Noah.)

This week, please allow me to share with you parts that really stood out to me, parts that made me take notice and grab a sticky note.

“I grew up in South Africa during apartheid, which was awkward because I was raised in a mixed family, with me being the mixed one in the family.” 

“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.” 

“Estranged from her family, pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public, she was alone. The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations — I was born a crime.”

“As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate. I didn’t know any of it had to do with ‘race.’ I didn’t know what race was.”

“That, and  so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.

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. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.” 

“My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid — not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.

“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.” 

“But I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on.” 

“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.” 

Books, Books, and More Books

Last week, I did something I haven’t done since early 2020.

I went inside my public library.

During the pandemic, I was lucky enough to still be checking out books from my library, but through a system of reserving specific titles and arranging a day and time to pick them up.

But the library is open again. Open for leisurely browsing. For stocking up. For being in awe of the sheer number of books I have yet to read.

I first thought I’d go into the library with no plans. Just me, my library card, and my empty tote bag. And I’d stroll among the shelves, picking up books, reading the summaries on the back cover, and bringing home as many books as I wanted. (Or as many as I could carry in my bag.)

But then that thought made me feel a bit overwhelmed. There is such a thing as too much choice. 

So I handled the visit to the library the same way I handle my grocery shopping.

It’s considered foolish to grocery shop on an empty stomach. I thought the same rule should apply to me in a library. I was hungry for books. For the freedom to walk in and pick up books because something — a cover, a title — caught my eye. 

So I made a list.

I went online and accessed the library’s catalog. And wrote down the call numbers for books that had been on my “want-to-read” list. I limited myself to eight books. (I’m not sure how I settled on eight, except that ten seemed too many, and eight seemed close enough to ten.)

I went to the library and made my way around the shelves, gathering my books, until my bag was heavier than I expected (I didn’t realize one book was a hardcover and over 400 pages long). 

And I came home happy. With eight books including memoir (Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood), poetry (Mary Oliver’s Devotions), and fiction (Linda Holmes’s Evvie Drake Starts Over) to name a few.

Libraries are open again, and in case you couldn’t tell, I was smiling under my mask.

(The public library still requires patrons to wear masks in consideration of the younger readers who don’t yet have access to a vaccine.)