On Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," comedian Trevor Noah has carved out a place as an incredulous outsider of American politics, a South African transplant equally comfortable satirizing racism abroad and fear-mongering in the United States.
But as the son of a white Swiss father and a black mother who grew up in South Africa under apartheid, Noah, 32, has a lifetime of experience being the outsider, he writes in his memoir "Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood."
In one anecdote near the start of "Born a Crime," (to be published Nov. 15 by Penguin Random House), Noah recalls his Soweto upbringing in an "elevated hut with no running water." Forced by his mother to remain indoors during his childhood because it was illegal to be mixed-race under apartheid, Noah sometimes wandered outdoors. During one of these excursions at 12 years old, he encountered in-your-face racism for the first time. A group of muggers approached Noah from behind, muttering in Xhosa, his mother's language. The muggers, judging Noah's light skin tone, believed he only spoke English. Noah reacted quickly. He smiled, whipped around, and asked in Xhosa to join the muggers in attacking someone else. They sheepishly apologized and retreated.
Noah, who will discuss "Born a Crime" on Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Miami Book Fair, says in an email interview that American racism, although more subdued than racism in South Africa, suffers from a "troubled past."
"In America, as this election has made clear, the past has not been dealt with," Noah says. "The main difference is that, while racism obviously still exists in South Africa, we went through a period of reckoning, of truth and reconciliation. There are a great many people who don't want to acknowledge what happened here with slavery and Jim Crow. It's much harder to deal with a problem when people won't even acknowledge that it exists."
While waiting for the 2016 presidential election results to roll in on Nov. 8 in New York, Noah spent some downtime answering questions about the challenges of filling Jon Stewart's shoes on "The Daily Show," juggling a book tour and being raised by a household of women.
You describe yourself as a "chameleon" in the book. With your recent move to America, taking over a fake-news show on Comedy Central and a long, stressful election, have you surprised yourself with your ability to adapt?
I won't lie. "The Daily Show" was a big change and huge challenge, both in terms of the amount of work to relaunch the show and people's expectations of me coming in. But I've always been blessed with the ability to take things in stride. It's just my nature and a temperament I inherited from my parents. Plus, when you've been poor and know how to be poor, nothing is ever really that bad, because you've always got poverty to fall back on.
You were raised primarily by women — your mother, grandmother and great-grandmother — with your biological father largely absent from your life. How does growing up with powerful female figures help shape how you see fundamental truths about the world?
I saw from a very early age how sexism and misogyny are crippling, both to women and to men. Women are held back in the workplace by abusive husbands. Men are trapped by society's ideas of what it means to "be a man," often preventing them from simply being themselves, a frustration that they then in turn take out on women. It's a vicious, violent cycle.
In "Born a Crime," you recall the time, in 2009, when your stepfather shot your mother in the face. The doctor described her survival as a "miracle." How is your mother doing now, and how does she feel about your success in America?
Today, my mother is doing great. Full recovery. She's happy for my success, both in America and elsewhere, but she's not particularly invested in "Trevor Noah" as a public person. She's never come to the show. She's never even seen my standup. I go to her house and tell jokes and stories at dinner; she doesn't need to buy a ticket like everyone else.
Part of the Internet ecosystem is to make what airs on television go viral the next day. When you eviscerate Donald Trump on TV, and that goes viral on YouTube and Facebook, do you ever think about making "The Daily Show" viral-ready?
It's unfortunate that the success of something is judged on how quickly it goes viral, or how violently it "eviscerates." Real truth and real insight are nuanced. Some jokes you need to sit with for a while before they sink in. But the Internet doesn't do nuance very well. I've learned that Americans don't do nuance very well, either. And when you've got Americans on the Internet, you can forget about nuance completely. I try and concentrate on saying things that are interesting and funny and true.
Because of your hosting duties on "The Daily Show," how difficult are you finding it to juggle a book tour for "Born a Crime" at the same time?
I'm juggling quite a bit these days. Fortunately soon […] the book will be out in the world and out of my hands. I haven't had to cancel anything, fortunately, as I've an expert team of handlers and schedulers who plan all my engagements in and around the schedule for the show. When I'm lucky, they actually schedule me an hour or two of time to myself.
Trevor Noah will discuss "Born a Crime" 6-7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, at Miami-Dade College's Chapman Conference Center, 300 NE Second Ave., Building 3, Room 3210, in Miami. Admission is $40, and includes a copy of "Born a Crime." Call 305-237-3258 or go to MiamiBookFair.com.
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