Over this past year, I read Trevor Noah’s, Born a Crime. It had such a strong impact on me that I read it multiple times in a row. My love for this book has led me to wonder what this memoir does that other books don’t. I have hated, or been disinterested in, every other memoir I have purchased by a mainstream comedian. How did Trevor succeed in grabbing my attention where other memoirs failed? I examine elements of the book that I think are particularly good below.
The opening of the book is stunning. Noah instantly gets you invested in the story of his life. This opening creates some tension. It makes readers wonder what led him Noah to be involved in such horrific situations. These include being thrown out of a car, and having to deal with his mother’s assumed tragic death. This underlying tension helps the story move forward and keeps readers entranced by the events. In addition, Noah increases tension by artfully reintroducing plot points right when the reader begins to forget about them.
Trevor Noah isn’t trying to be funny. Don’t get me wrong, Born a Crime is funny. However, Trevor lets it happen organically. He is not trying to be funny. Nothing is more painful than someone trying really hard to be funny and failing miserably. This is even worse in writing because it can come off as condescending.
Born a Crime is not a condescending book. Noah recognizes that many readers have little knowledge about Apartheid, and he summarizes this historical injustice in a way that is simple to understand. He never questions the reader’s intelligence. As writers, we can be prone to over-explaining things in a manner that can sound condescending and rude to the reader. Over-explaining or over-sharing can make readers feel stupid or bored.
Noah does an excellent job conveying his character’s voices. Throughout the book, his mother is depicted as having a particularly unique personality. Abel has his own distinct voice as well. Even side characters have voices and are not flat.
The most important thing that I think, Born a Crime, does is create intimacy with the reader. I never got the impression that Noah was lying to me or keeping information hidden from me. He told me everything relevant to the story. I believe that readers have a sense that tells them when a writer is keeping something from them. As a writer, you have to put it all out there. The emotional intimacy you create with the reader while writing non-fiction is the difference between publication and rejection. That is the lesson I believe writers should take from Born a Crime.