Podcast

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Walk the Thin Line Between Rascal and Rotten

Up to a certain point, readers love rascally misbehavior. We’re happy to read a paragraph like this one, in the first chapter of Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime”:

  • I was naughty as shit. She would send me out to buy groceries, and I wouldn’t come right home because I’d be using the change from the milk and bread to play arcade games at the supermarket. I loved videogames. I was a master at Street Fighter. I could go forever on a single play. I’d drop a coin in, time would fly, and the next thing I knew there’d be a woman behind me with a belt. It was a race. I’d take off out the door and through the dusty streets of Eden Park, clambering over walls, ducking through backyards.

Such paragraphs are joyous and liberating. They remind us of the freedom from consequences we used to feel, and long to feel again. They make us think that if we were a little more brave we could outrun those that hold us back. We admire the audacity of young Trevor for misbehaving, and of old Trevor for bragging about it so shamelessly.

But at some point, for me as a reader, I started to get a bit uncomfortable with how he related his memories.  Maybe, of course, this was a simple case of “white reader pathologizes behavior in black man that he would forgive in white people,” but I did find myself saying at times, “Uh, this guy might actually be a sociopath.” The most obvious tipping point was when young Trevor was playing with matches and burnt down a house. He describes his feelings after watching it burn to the ground:

  • I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I still don’t. The lawyer in me maintains that I am completely innocent. There were matches and there was a magnifying glass and there was a mattress and then, clearly, a series of unfortunate events. Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, “Trevor burned down a house.” If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me “Terror” instead. “Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,” he’d say. “He’ll burn it to the ground.”

That same cocky defiance started to curdle for me. Did he really have to say “didn’t feel bad about it at all”? What sort of adult defends burning down a house?  In the next paragraph, I got even more uncomfortable about his imperviousness to consequences:

  • My cousin Mlungisi, to this day, cannot comprehend how I survived being as naughty as I was for as long as I did, how I withstood the number of hidings that I got. Why did I keep misbehaving? How did I never learn my lesson? Both of my cousins were supergood kids. Mlungisi got maybe one hiding in his life. After that he said he never wanted to experience anything like it ever again, and from that day he always followed the rules. But I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on. You’ll have a few bruises and they’ll remind you of what happened and that’s okay. But after a while the bruises fade, and they fade for a reason—because now it’s time to get up to some shit again.

Reading the book made me admire Noah’s personal bravery and his skill at telling his story, but it also confirmed some of the vibe I’ve always gotten off him.

I think of his joke at the Oscars this year. As CNN summed it up:

  • “The Daily Show” host introduced the best picture nominee Black Panther and had some fun with the idea that people think the fictional setting of the country of Wakanda is real.
  • Noah, who is South African, joked about knowing the movie’s main character, T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman.
  • “Growing up as a young boy in Wakanda, I would see T’Challa flying over our village, and he would remind me of a great Xhosa phrase,” Noah said. “He says ‘abelungu abazi uba ndiyaxoka’ -- which means, ‘In times like these, we are stronger when we fight together than when we try to fight apart.’”
  • But those who speak Xhosa got a good chuckle, because what Noah actually said is: “White people don't know I’m lying.”

On the one hand, this was really funny to find out about the next day, but thinking back on it, knowing what he was actually saying, there was something sorta creepy about Noah’s beatific smile as he said the words in Xhosa, looking into the eyes of hundreds of people who didn’t know he was mocking them.

Noah has been through a lot. His very existence was criminal until the age of five. His mom threw him from a taxi to escape would-be rapist/murderers, who were never arrested. His stepdad shot his mom in the head and the police didn’t care. Police ended his teenage DJ career by shooting his computer dead. Whatever qualities that may have resulted are understandable. And he deserves credit for writing honest and forthrightly about his life and emotions.

As I read his book, maybe I was supposed to revel in his earlier misbehavior and then feel chilled when I saw how far it went. The book made me trust him very much as an honest, self-aware person.  That paragraph shows that he’s admirably grappled with his own psychology.  But it certainly kept me from bonding with him 100%.

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