The Washington State University Common Reading Program has announced that the 2016 book by television star and comedian Trevor Noah, titled, “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood,” will be used as the 2020-21 shared read for students.

The book describes several of Noah’s experiences growing up as the son of a white Swiss father and black Xhosa tribe woman under an apartheid government. At the time, being of mixed races in that country was illegal. That was the basis for the book’s title.

“This selection will provide a rich field of topics from which the Common Reading Program will draw for year-long classroom discussion, programming, and guest expert lectures,” said Karen Weathermon, director. “The book will provide a platform for examining issues of inequalities as they occur in a variety of different contexts as well as issues of race, identity, family, and the power of storytelling.”

Noah’s book is the fourteenth in as many years to be chosen for use by WSU first-year and other students in courses and academic discussions. “Born a Crime” will be used at Pullman and likely at several other campuses.

“Thousands of WSU students have benefitted from the program since it began,” said Weathermon. “The common reading helps students experience new ideas and create academically focused networks with professors and other students. The program is carefully designed to stimulate critical thinking and strengthen forms of communication around a selected single book.”

The Common Reading Program is part of the Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement (DAESA). DAESA is in the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President.

Top choice among three nominations

“The book was among the top three sent by the selection committee to the Provost’s Office for a final selection,” she said. The other two are “Secondhand,” by Adam Minter, and “The Water Will Come,” by Jeff Goodell. The committee is made up of faculty, staff, and students and has worked since fall reading and evaluating more than 30 books nominated by the WSU community.

Interim Provost and Executive Vice President Bryan Slinker made the final selection of “Born a Crime.” Announcing his decision to Weathermon, he wrote that the book presents a variety of topics “to delve into across a range of academic disciplines.” He noted that in addition to his storytelling, Noah presents “brief, more factual introductions to each chapter (that provoke) thought and (set up) why the story follows.” Slinker felt that Noah’s status within popular culture would also make the book appeal to students.

A book with many aspects

Though reviewers and critics have labeled the book an autobiographical comedy, an autobiography, and a memoir, Noah himself describes the book—and the subsequent audio book that he narrated—rather an homage to his mother, “the real hero of my story.”

“I come from a culture of storytellers,” he said in interviews. “(My) story in South Africa is one about belonging, segregation, overcoming obstacles. We all deal with issues of belonging, self-doubt, and obstacles.  There’s always something that prevents you from getting where you want to go. Overcoming that is a universal story.”

He said he started out to write stories, and they turned into the book.

“It’s more of a love letter to my Mom rather than a memoir…I’m too young to write a memoir anyway.”

The author’s journey

Noah was born in 1984 and primarily raised by his mother, a devout Christian who made sure her first son learned to speak English as well as many regional languages. As a colored child—one of mixed races—Noah describes often being treated differently because of his lighter skin. As a youth, he said he was a tad rebellious. He pirated and mixed CDs to sell, and worked as a deejay.

He came to the U.S. in 2011 and became the first South African comedian to appear on TV’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno early in 2012 and on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2013. He became the host of The Daily Show when Jon Stewart departed in 2015 and holds that position today. He has appeared in televised comedy specials, received numerous awards for his comedy, and travels the world on comedy tours. He was WSU Dad’s Weekend headline act in November 2016.

“Born a Crime”, published by Spiegel and Grau in 2016, was an instant New York Times bestseller and many weeks on the bestseller list. It won the James Thurber Prize for American Humor and two NAACP Image Awards, and has been translated into 10 languages. He recorded it as an audio book, and it is being made into a film starring and co-produced by Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupito Nyong’o.

Availability of books for faculty use

Digital exam copies will be available this spring and summer for teaching faculty and program staff interested in considering use of the book for the coming academic year. You can request a copy via an online form. Those requesting a copy will be emailed a link to access the book online.

For more information about the new book or the program, visit the Common Reading Program website.