Anyone who’s seen “Gilmore Girls” or other similar stories will recognize the idea of a single mom and child who interact as almost-equals, but never quite like Trevor Noah and his mom. Here’s their conversation from the first chapter of his book (It is always dubious, of course, when a memoir recreates this much dialogue, but readers are forgiving.)
- “It’s the Devil,” she said about the stalled car. “The Devil doesn’t want us to go to church. That’s why we’ve got to catch minibuses.”
- Whenever I found myself up against my mother’s faith-based obstinacy, I would try, as respectfully as possible, to counter with an opposing point of view.
- “Or,” I said, “the Lord knows that today we shouldn’t go to church, which is why he made sure the car wouldn’t start, so that we stay at home as a family and take a day of rest, because even the Lord rested.”
- “Ah, that’s the Devil talking, Trevor.”
- “No, because Jesus is in control, and if Jesus is in control and we pray to Jesus, he would let the car start, but he hasn’t, therefore—”
- “No, Trevor! Sometimes Jesus puts obstacles in your way to see if you overcome them. Like Job. This could be a test.”
- “Ah! Yes, Mom. But the test could be to see if we’re willing to accept what has happened and stay at home and praise Jesus for his wisdom.”
- “No. That’s the Devil talking. Now go change your clothes.”
- “But, Mom!”
- “Trevor! Sun’qhela!”
- Sun’qhela is a phrase with many shades of meaning. It says “don’t undermine me,” “don’t underestimate me,” and “just try me.” It’s a command and a threat, all at once. It’s a common thing for Xhosa parents to say to their kids. Any time I heard it I knew it meant the conversation was over, and if I uttered another word I was in for a hiding—what we call a spanking.
(This is of course a trick that screenwriters don’t have, jumping in to unpack the hidden meanings behind one word.)
Both characters have unique voices and strong opinions. Together they have a complex, shifting power dynamic. Either character on their own could probably carry the story, but it’s their contentious but loving relationship that will really power the book. Compelling characters are great, but compelling relationships are even better.