Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

In Born A Crime, Trevor Noah, host of the popular late night program, The Daily Show, compiles stories from his childhood in South Africa.

Trevor was born in 1984 to a Black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss-German father; a union that was considered illegal under apartheid. 


Trevor writes about the system of oppression in South Africa and how the structure was carefully studied and carried out. Examples of how to oppress people were deliberately taken from other countries, including the U.S.

By the time South Africa became a democracy, racism and white supremacy were already deeply institutionalized. Even after Nelson Mandela was elected president and the African National Congress came into power, Black people still lacked opportunities and adequate resources to lift their families out of the circumstances that apartheid manufactured. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and books by other South African writers, journalists, and scholars provide a rich account of apartheid and the legacy of the racist regime.


Born a crime is not a linear story. The book is a set of vignettes about Trevor’s life. Many stories will make you laugh out loud, and others will leave you gasping. These stories highlight important themes from the impact of colonialism in South Africa to the privileges that come with being presumed to be white. Born a crime also explores Christianity, language, gender, and violence.

One of my favorite stories in the book centers on Trevor and his friend “Hitler” (yes, I know. Trevor’s point exactly), a star dancer in Trevor’s crew. In this scene, Hitler is dancing at a Jewish gathering where Trevor is DJing and cheering “Go Hitler! Go Hitler! Go Hitler!” They eventually get kicked out.

Trevor shares this story to describe the impact of colonialism on name preferences in South Africa. During apartheid, Black South Africans were forced to give their children names “that white people could pronounce.” As a result, many Black South Africans named their children Hitler because they were missing the context of historical events.

Trevor notes that the South African education system inadequately teaches students about history. In many instances, the experiences of oppressed groups are glaringly missing as if history is a one-sided phenomenon. Although names are often selected from the Bible, according to Trevor, the parents that named their children Hitler were probably unaware that apartheid was modeled after Hitler’s racist policies. Trevor’s accounts are like the history textbooks in the U.S. that misrepresent slavery or leave it out completely.


Trevor Noah is a brilliant storyteller. In Born A Crime, he weaves serious discussions of social inequities in South Africa to hilarious anecdotes about his upbringing, childhood mischief, and experiences with his friends and family.

Born A Crime was very much about Trevor as it was about his mom, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, a woman who resolved to ensure that Trevor experienced life on his own terms.

The book was a quick read. I tried to read it slowly, so I had something to look forward to but ended up finishing it in one weekend. The book will be adapted to a movie and Lupita Nyong’o will play Trevor’s mother

I’m looking forward to watching these stories play out in the film. 

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We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

In We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo juxtaposes different realities. 

Despite critiques for exploiting stereotypes about Africa and the experiences of African immigrants in the U.S., NoViolet forces readers to face undeniable truths.

The story centers on the experiences of ten-year-old Darling and her friends (Bastard, Godknows, Stina, Chipo, and Sbho). We meet the group as they are leaving for Budapest to steal guavas.

The children are not heading to Hungary’s capital city, but to a fictional place in Zimbabwe that provides a contrast to the children’s shanty town, Paradise. While people in Budapest live in excess, those in Paradise survive on international aid. Residents erected make-shift shacks after being forcefully evicted from their homes by a government program tasked with purging Zimbabwe of poor people (Operation Murambatsvina).

We follow Darling and her friends on their adventures, and later focus on Darling’s life in the U.S. When Darling dreams of life the U.S., she does not foresee the culture shock, the sense of displacement, and the loss of identity that await her. She hopes to own a Lamborghini Reventón and to see celebrities like Lady Gaga and Rihanna.

Key chapters in the book capture people’s dreams of migration; the experiences immigrants face upon arrival to the U.S.; the connections they hope to sustain; and the performance of maintaining two identities. These themes show-up throughout the novel.


Darling and her friends have their way of dealing with the problems they face. For example, when Bornfree, a political activist is murdered, the children make a game out of it. When a BBC journalist asks what type of game they are playing, one of the children retorts, “can’t you see this is for real?”

Here, imagination and reality become blurry. Even as Darling and her friends deal with the issues of Zimbabwe through play, they understand—to some extent—their dire circumstances. They know that being born free does not guarantee freedom from a violent government. 

How They Left

“How They Left” was one of my favorite chapters in the book. The chapter transitions the novel from Darling’s adventures in Zimbabwe to her immigration to Detroit, Michigan.

“Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the same again because you cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same.”

By the end, I had to stop and really see people leaving their homelands. The final sentence foreshadows the rest of the book and ultimately, Darling’s experience in her attempts to adapt to life in the U.S. 

How They Lived

“How They Lived” was another great chapter. This chapter centered on the things immigrants lose when they leave their homeland. NoViolet contrasts expectations of new immigrants, to what they experience once they arrive in the U.S. In this chapter, she speaks for all immigrants by using a collective “We.” 

“And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where the life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled…Is it where the old president rigged the election and people were tortured and killed and a whole bunch of them put in prison and all, there where they are dying of cholera—oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.”

NoViolet centers the experiences of African immigrants who live in the U.S. and often have to defend the African continent even though they may be gravely unaware of the circumstances in other African countries. Similarly, the news often misrepresents African countries.

NoViolet also contrasts the lack of information about Africa by those in the U.S. with Africans back home who ask about life in the U.S.

”…they whispered: How will these ones ever be whole in that ’Melika, as far away from the graves of the ancestors as it is? Do people not live in fear in ’Melika, fear of evil? Do they not say it is like a grave in that ’Melika, that going there is like burying yourself because your people may never see you again? Is not ’Melika also that wretched place where they took looted black sons and daughters those many, many years ago?

How America Surprised

Despite the gross generalizations in this chapter, NoViolet’s message is clear. Many immigrants forgo their cultural practices to assimilate to life in the U.S. For some, however, sacrificing tradition comes at the right price, an American birth certificate for their children.

“And then our own children were born. We held their American birth certificates tight. We did not name our children after our parents, after ourselves; we feared if we did they would not be able to say their own names, that their friends and teachers would not know how to call them. We gave them names that would make them belong in America, names that did not mean anything to us: Aaron, Josh, Dana, Corey, Jack, Kathleen.”

I’m Not Alone

In another chapter, Darling speaks to one of her childhood friends on the phone. Their conversation about circumstances in Zimbabwe leads Chipo to declare that Darling no longer has the privilege to talk about Zimbabwe like it is her country. After all, Darling left Zimbabwe behind when she moved to the U.S.

”You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No, you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain; it’s us who stayed here feeling the real suffering, so it’s us who have a right to even say anything about that or anything and anybody.”

Again, NoViolet asserts that the news does not tell the full story. In the end, NoViolet concludes that everyone is complicit in stereotypes about Africa, and African immigrants.


Despite rooting this story in Zimbabwe and the U.S., I longed for more connections between the two countries. The Skype calls with Darling and her mother where a literal form of connection, but these calls soon waned. As the frequency of the calls decreased, so did Darling’s sense of identity and place. Although we witnessed Darling’s attempts to adapt to U.S. norms, we did not see her struggle to be a part of two worlds. We Need New Names falls short by failing to offer connections between Zimbabwe and the U.S. that move beyond objects and symbols.

The book has since won prestigious awards and has been translated into several languages. I believe centering the experiences of children, catapulted this book’s success. I marveled and laughed at their arguments, their ability to make up games, and play, only as children can.

The Boston Review published the first chapter of the book.

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Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Explore mental illness through Igbo mythology in Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

I read Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi during a recent trip to Nigeria and needed time for the story and the magnitude of the message to sink in.

The novel is narrated by a collective she/they who live inside the “the marble room” of Ada’s mind. Ada is a young Nigerian woman who was born “with one foot on the other side.” She is human, but she belongs to the gods and is an ọgbanje.

In Igbo folklore, ọgbanje’s are “children who come and go.” They are believed to be evil spirits who constantly die and are reborn in subsequent children. Their presence will plague any family with pain and misfortune. Usually, ọgbanje’s die as children, but Ada is able to appease the gods through self-harm and goes on to attend the University of North Carolina.

We meet Asụghara, one of Ada’s multiple personalities, after a gruesome sexual assault; and later meet Saint Vincent, a male personality who is gentle and soft. Asụghara is a dominant female who believes that her role is to “move and take and save” Ada. At times this means sabotaging Ada’s medications and visits with her therapist.

As the story progresses, Ada finds it had to live with fractured selves, and eventually attempts suicide.

Ada’s journey is astonishing.

Throughout the book, I was rooting for Ada and at the same time anxious that Asụghara and Saint Vincent will overcome her.

The book is dark, mysterious, and haunting; and at the same time, it is soft, poetic, and humorous. The story explores Ada’s fragmented selves, identities that are based on the author’s experiences.

The best part about the novel is that the author tracked Ada’s life from birth to adulthood and merged Igbo folklore, Christianity, and Western medicine to tell a moving story about mental illness.

While reading this book, I had to take occasional breaks because I felt like I was in Ada’s world. In this novel, Akwaeke Emezi takes us into her world and raises important questions:

  1. Why are Western schemas about mental illness how we define who is mentally ill?
  2. What role did colonialism play in ensuring that Western science supersedes Igbo mythology and tradition?

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi crosses the boundaries of worlds and countries, both physical and spiritual, and challenges readers to explore their “other selves.”

This was a brilliant and beautifully written novel.

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What We Lose: A Novel by Zinzi Clemmons

What Is Left When the Thing That Links Us to Our Heritage Is Lost?

Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose provides a striking account of life after loss. “What We Lose: A Support Guide” is the title of the pamphlet that the narrator, Thandie, receives after her mother’s death from cancer.

In What We Lose Clemmons tackles race, sexuality, friendship, loss, grief and, to some extent, migration. The book is carefully compiled with graphs, pictures, song lyrics, and blog posts to provide a rich account of the narrator’s struggles, realizations, and growth. When she proclaims that Black people are more likely to die of cancer compared to their White counterparts, she presents statistics to support this claim. She goes on to suggest that though Black women are more likely to die from cancer, their experiences are not the focus of dominant narratives and campaigns.

Despite Clemmons’ creative use of vignettes, however, What We Lose is at times jerky, and some thoughts are surprisingly incomplete. I wonder if these asides were done to support the primary narrative of loss and grief or if they were intended to stand alone. I am not sure.

Thandie’s take on South Africa, Oscar Pistorius (the South African Olympian who’s trial made international headlines because he murdered his girlfriend…thinking she was an intruder), and Winnie Mandela offered an interesting picture of post-Apartheid South Africa. One particular section that stands out is her musing on her racial identity.

“To my [South African] cousins and me, American blacks were the epitome of American cool. Blacks were the stars of rap videos, big-name comedians, and actors with their own television shows and world tours…

We worshipped them, and my cousins, especially, looked to the freedom that these stars represented as aspirational. It was a freedom synonymous with democracy, with political freedom—with America itself. It was rarefied, powerful.

But when I called myself black, my cousins looked at me askance.

They are what is called coloured in South Africa—mixed race—and my father is light-skinned black. I looked just like my relatives, but calling myself black was wrong to them.

Though American blacks were cool, South African blacks were ordinary, yet dangerous. It was something they didn’t want to be.”

Although Clemmons explored her mixed race and national identities, I wanted more. The death of her mother signified a loss of the very thing that connected her to her South African roots. The desire for belonging and her need to be tethered to something — from which an identity can be formulated — deserved a more in-depth exploration.

Hence the question, what is left when the thing that links us to our heritage is lost?

I believe this “thing” can be forgetting to speak a language, or forgetting cultural practices (dances, poems, etc.). What We Lose is an appropriate title as it can refer to the loss of something physical (a death) or a loss of a former home (migration). Still, some losses cannot be quantified or touched, only felt.

What We Lose is a fictional memoir at best. I have read very few books like it and celebrate its unique style.

I am looking forward to many more novels by this author.

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Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi Is Pure Magic

When I added Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi to my reading list, I did not know the backstory for the novel.

I only read the following and knew I had to read the book this summer.

“They killed my mother.

They took our magic.

They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.”

I now know the following about the novel:

  • The Legacy of Orisha is the first book in a trilogy
  • Its a young adult fantasy novel
  • It was one of the most anticipated books of the year [Vulture]
  • It will be adapted to film by 20th Century Fox [Deadline]
  • It was inspired by the ongoing protests against the murders of unarmed Black children by the police in the U.S., and the uproar after racist viewers realized that Rue’s character in the Hunger Games, Amandla Stenberg, was Black [Washington Post].

The story was written as a revolt against systemic oppression and inequities. The novel infuses Yoruba mythology with the fight for equity and draws parallels with police brutality and the dehumanization of Black people in the U.S. (and around the world).

The story is set, in what to me, appears to be Nigeria. Given that the Adebola’s live in Ilorin, in the fictional country of Orïsha.

Orïsha is socially stratified. This means that the citizens of Orïsha are grouped and treated differently based on certain characteristics.

  • Maji: perform magic (used to before it was wiped out from Orïsha)
  • Divîners: have the potential to do magic. Their full head of white hair set them apart from everyone else. Divîners are discriminated against and treated poorly.
  • Kosidán: cannot do magic. These are the noble/upper class of Orïsha.

Readers discover that when Zélie (a divîner) and Tzain (a kosidán) were children, their mother was killed in a maji genocide (the Raid). The tyrannical King Saran ordered the killing of everyone over the age of thirteen. After the genocide, magic disappears from Orïsha, and the maji can no longer perform magic. They are now divîners and are used for slave labor, abused, mistreated, and referred to as “maggots.”

The plot thickens when Zélie and Tzain’s story merge with the story of King Saran and his children, Amari and Inan. The way these relationships unfold and how each character makes sense of their respective duties to Orïsha and their family is powerful.

King Saran institutionalizes discrimination and prejudice in Orïsha, banning traditions and levying heavy taxes on the divîners. Because of their lack of power, divîners live in perpetual fear of King Saran and the guards, who are present to “protect the citizens.” However, divîners are abused and berated by the guards.

Tomi Adeyemi’s portrayal of economic inequity is astute. The divîners live in a cycle of poverty and debt because they can not afford to pay the taxes levied on them. If they fail to make payments, divîners are brutally punished. They are rendered powerless even though their labor— blood and bone— is used for Orïsha’s economic growth.

I marvel at Afro fantasy fiction and the depths from which writers like Tomi Adeyemi pull to create stories that are rooted in fantasy and reality. Maybe the thing about creating a fictional world is that you can mirror what exists in real life but by the end of the novel, have characters that can press restart.

Once I started reading, I could not stop. There is something about magic itself that makes this book so captivating. Children of Blood and Bone was worth the wait and I look forward to watching everything play out on the big screen.

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