Photo credit: Kwaku Alston
Describe your latest book.
Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood is my first book, a collection of humorous stories and personal essays that all work together to form a kind of coming-of-age memoir. It’s about my life growing up as a mixed-race kid under apartheid and during the difficult years that came after it fell, but it’s really a book about my mother, who did most of the hard work of making sure I made it through that period of time alive. She almost didn’t. The book starts with me getting thrown out of a moving car, and it ends with my mother getting shot in the head. Some interesting things happen in between as well.
What was your favorite book as a child?
For a long time, the Bible. My very religious mother didn’t allow pop culture and Hollywood movies in our house, so the Bible was my Hollywood movie. Jesus casting out the money changers, Samson beating men to death with the jawbone of a donkey — those stories were rock and roll. Once I could buy my own books, I fell in love with fantasy and devoured anything and everything by Roald Dahl: The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. For a kid who lived in his head, those stories were like crack.
When did you know you were a writer?
I’d call myself more of a storyteller than a writer. That’s what I do onstage. I suppose I knew it for certain the first time I got up at an open-mic night for comedians at a Johannesburg café. I told a funny story about some Nigerians I knew who were running a TV-repair scam, and everyone laughed. I knew that night that telling funny stories was what I was meant to do.
What does your writing workspace look like?
It looks like the inside of my head wherever I’m at. I work on my feet. For my stand-up, I don’t write anything down. When I have to sit down and put fingers to keys, it’s usually at my dining room table.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Khaya Dlanga is a great writer and a good friend, well known in South Africa but less so outside of it. Anyone interested in a contemporary look at life in my country since apartheid fell would do well to read his memoir, To Quote Myself.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I treasured my small library of books as a kid; we were poor, and my books were the nicest things I owned. But today most of my library can be found in the Kindle app on my iPhone, which isn’t very romantic, I know, but it allows me to get around. I like to travel light, and I live that way as well. I don’t collect much in the way of things. I collect friends and experiences and stories to tell.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Before I started stand-up, I took money from an acting job and bought a taxi cab. Taxi drivers in South Africa — the successful ones — often do very well. I was not very successful, and did not do well at all. I wound up deeply in debt and was saved only when the taxi got carjacked, giving me the insurance money to walk away.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Not having an audience in front of me. Onstage, I tell a joke or a story and I know right away if it’s working or not. I know how to handle that. With a book, you’re writing hundreds of pages and putting them out in the world and you don’t know what the response will be until the reviews come back.
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
“I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car.”
Describe a recurring or particularly memorable dream or nightmare.
The first time my stepfather hit me, I was trapped in a small pantry off the kitchen in our house in Johannesburg. I managed to wriggle past him and get out, and I ran through the yard and out our front gate into the street. He was right behind me. I turned and caught a glimpse of his face just as he rounded the fence coming after me. For 15 years I had a recurring nightmare of the look on his face as he came around that corner.
Do you have any phobias?
I don’t know if it counts as a phobia, but I hate having my hands dirty. My stepfather was an auto mechanic, and when I was 10 years old I had to work full-time in his workshop, changing tires, oil filters, spark plugs, grease under my fingernails that never went away. To this day, I can’t stand dirt or grease on my hands.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
Video games. I’ve loved video games my whole life. I got more than a few spankings at home for taking my mom’s change and disappearing for hours playing the Street Fighter game down at the supermarket. Eventually my mom broke down and bought me a Nintendo console just to keep me from leaving the house.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
My mother didn’t believe in self-pity. “Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” she used to say, “but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.” She could also give good relationship tips. I started cornrowing my hair in high school, spending hours at the salon getting it done. She took one look at me and said, “I could never date a man who spends more time on his hair than I do.”
My top five (nonfiction) books about South Africa:
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
A must-read. Mandela is as great a writer as he was an activist and politician.
Native Life in South Africa by Sol Plaatje
Sol Plaatje was the first General Secretary of the organization that became Mandela’s African National Congress, and his writings have survived to become some of the most compelling and celebrated accounts of the early days of apartheid.
My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan
Malan, descended from one of South Africa’s most prominent political families, some of whom were the architects of apartheid, gives a brutal excavation of a white South African’s conscience during the final days of white rule.
To Quote Myself by Khaya Dlanga
See above. A smart and witty look at life in South Africa today.
Move Your Shadow by Joseph Lelyveld
The only book here by a non–South African. Lelyveld was the South African correspondent for the New York Times in the mid-1980s. This is his Pulitzer Prize–winning account of life in the country during the years my parents met and had me, and it offers an excellent look at that world as I entered it.
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is the host of the Emmy and Peabody Award–winning The Daily Show
. He first joined the show as a contributor in 2014 and succeeded Jon Stewart as host in 2015. While The Daily Show
has introduced Noah to an American audience, he's long been a popular comedian around the globe. Born in South Africa to a black South African mother and a white European father, Noah rose improbably to stardom with The Racist
, his one-man show at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which enjoyed a sold-out run and became one of the most talked-about shows at the festival that year. He made his U.S. television debut that year on The Tonight Show
with Jay Leno and has also appeared on The Late Show
with David Letterman, becoming the first South African stand-up comedian to appear on either late-night program. Born a Crime
is his first book.