Yes, they want to hear about amazing events, but no memoir has ever sustained itself by just being a series of events. What they really want to know is, even if there’s nothing extraordinary going on, will you have a unique perspective on everyday life? Do you have a properly skewed point of view, showing amusing and perceptive insight that surprises us, but instantly seems right?
Of course, one question that Trevor Noah had to ask himself when he sat down to write his life story was how angry he wanted to be on the page. He’s writing about horrific historical injustices, and the last thing he wants to do is trivialize them, but he does want to make light of them, and that’s a tricky line to walk.
The solution is to look back at injustice with an amused and amusing point of view. The whole point of this book is that Noah, being one of very few biracial South Africans, is never entirely welcome in any community outside of his own home. This means that no historical perspective is “his story.” He looks upon both blacks and whites from the POV of a somewhat-cynical outsider, which allows him to take his amusement where he pleases, neither approving of nor judging those who had to make terrible decisions. For instance:
- The white man was quite stern with the native. “You need to pray to Jesus,” he said. “Jesus will save you.” To which the native replied, “Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.”
- If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.
We just like hearing this guy talk. Another form of skewed point of view that early-childhood memoir writers can and must avail themselves of is child logic. We all remember, with some embarrassment and some wonder, the bizarre logical inferences we made as a kid, looking at the world with unschooled eyes. The ability to capture this way of thinking, and show its wisdom, is a big part of memoir writing:
- But at black church I would sit there for what felt like an eternity, trying to figure out why time moved so slowly. Is it possible for time to actually stop? If so, why does it stop at black church and not at white church? I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more.
A great storyteller doesn’t even need interesting material. They can make anything amusing. Of course, if you start with an amazing life, and then add a great voice on top of that, you’ll have it made.
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