South African Penguin Random House author and Comedy Central Network Daily Show host Trevor Noah has won this year’s Thurber Prize for his memoir Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. The Thurber Prize for American Humor is the only recognition of the art of humour writing in the United States. It was founded by Thurber House in 1997 in honour of James Thurber, one of the foremost American humorists of the 20th century, author of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and creator of numerous cartoons for The New Yorker magazine.
Trevor received the prize at a ceremony at Caroline’s on Broadway in New York City on October 2, 2017, where he received $5,000, a commemorative plaque, and an invitation to Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio as a featured guest at a special event.
By turns alarming, sad and funny, his book provides a harrowing look, through the prism of Mr. Noah’s family, at life in South Africa under apartheid and the country’s lurching entry into a post-apartheid era in the 1990’s. Some stories will be familiar to fans who have followed the author’s stand-up act. But his accounts here are less the polished anecdotes of a comedian underscoring the absurdities of life under apartheid, than raw, deeply personal reminiscences about being “half-white, half-black” in a country where his birth “violated any number of laws, statutes and regulations.”
Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. Noah’s stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humour and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.
‘As much as Born a Crime is about Trevor, you can’t help but see yourself in the stories he tells. In many ways, he is all of us. When Trevor writes about his mother, I felt like he was writing about mine. He was born in the tragedy and comedy that was apartheid South Africa and he recounts his experiences with compassion and humour. He validates my view: although we all seem ordinary, we all have extraordinary stories to tell – and to live.’
– Khaya Dlanga
‘Born a Crime strikes a perfect balance of humour and seriousness. It is wild and calming; it makes you want to sit and reflect silently, and also pick up the phone to question loved ones. It is both Xhosa and Swiss – the two forces that created this crime. Bravo Trevor! This book gave me all the answers about you to questions I never knew I had.’
– Anele Mdoda
The judges for the 2017 Thurber Prize were: Joe Blundo: whose column, So To Speak, has won him the National Society of Newspaper Columnists contest for humor writing in large newspapers, Julie Schumacher: the first female winner of the Thurber Prize for her book Dear Committee Members and Ian Frazier: a staff writer at The New Yorker who has authored eleven books, and a two-time winner of the Thurber Prize for his books Coyote v. Acme and Lamentations of the Father.
The runner-ups were novelists Ken Pisani’s (author of Amp’d), and Aaron Their – nominated for Mr. Eternity.
Noah’s quote in the book detailing why he got his name is indicative of what his future was to become, “The names chosen for Xhosa children traditionally have meanings, Mr. Noah observes: His mother’s name, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, means “She Who Gives Back”; his cousin’s name, Mlungisi, means “The Fixer.” His mother, Mr. Noah writes, deliberately gave him a name, Trevor, with “no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family.”
“It’s not even a biblical name,” he writes. “It’s just a name. My mother wanted her child beholden to no fate. She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.”