Trevor Noah Says He Grew Up 'In The Shadow Of A Giant' (His Mom) The Daily Show host revisits his childhood in apartheid-era South Africa in his new memoir, Born a Crime. Noah says writing the book helped him see that his mother was the real hero of his story.

Trevor Noah Says He Grew Up 'In The Shadow Of A Giant' (His Mom)

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Trevor Noah the host of "The Daily Show." He took over the show last year after the departure of Jon Stewart. Now Noah has a new memoir called "Born A Crime," and he literally was. He's South African, the son of a black mother and white father. When Noah was born in 1984 during the apartheid era, it was illegal for a black person and a white person to have sexual relations. As you can imagine, this led to complications for Noah and for his mother who he lived with. Trevor Noah traveled the world doing stand-up comedy before hosting "The Daily Show." Trevor Noah, welcome to FRESH AIR.

TREVOR NOAH: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Does Donald Trump's election change at all how you see the role of "The Daily Show?"

NOAH: I think it does because if you think of where "The Daily Show" was when I inherited it from Jon Stewart, I was in a space where essentially everything seemed like it was on track. You know, in terms of - from a progressive point of view, you know, you're looking at Republicans who, yes, were in control of many facets of government, but at the same time, you had Barack Obama as a president. You had Hillary Clinton on track, all the Democrats looking good. And, you know, Donald Trump was just an entertaining buffoon to watch. And over time, you came to realize that Donald Trump was appealing to a lot of people with his populist message. And, slowly, I think even as a show, we started shifting in tone as the election started shifting.

GROSS: Are you concerned about Donald Trump's statement that he's going to tighten the libel laws? Now, you're satire, and satire is protected as long as it's clearly satire.

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: And people wouldn't confuse it with fact. And I think your show is clearly a satirical program.

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: Nevertheless, are you concerned that there might be any effort to prevent you doing what you're doing?

NOAH: I don't know. I don't think I, myself, am personally afraid. I do worry for the press, though, because Donald Trump has shown himself to be extremely thin-skinned. He does not take criticism well, nor does he appreciate reporting on his life. So if he says that if he wins, he's going to, you know, dismantle the libel laws and come off to the newspapers, I feel like we should take him at his word. This is the same man who has been writing letters to people who he's, you know, bared a grudge against for 20 years. So if Donald Trump says that, I don't know why you wouldn't want to believe him.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you've been getting any extremist racist tweets or emails directed at you because of the satire that you do about Trump?

NOAH: Oh, yeah. But, I mean, that's just Twitter.


GROSS: Business as usual.

NOAH: Yeah. That was there before the show. I wouldn't - you know, I wouldn't say in my will that that came specifically from Donald Trump. You know, Twitter is a place where there is extreme vitriol at all times, so I would be lying if I said I noticed a difference. I will say this, though, one of the people from my online team said he didn't notice - almost immediately after the Trump victory within the following days, he noticed that there was a severe spike in hateful messages that were coming towards me.

GROSS: Did you face anything like that in South Africa?

NOAH: Well, we have a fair amount of racism. You know, I grew up in a country that...

GROSS: I don't mean when you were growing up (laughter).

NOAH: Oh, you mean on Twitter?

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, like when you were doing comedy.

NOAH: Oh, no, not really. Not really actually. No that was something - I had some people who disagreed with me here or there, but nothing as strong as I've received, you know, coming to America.

GROSS: It's interesting because you grew up in an area where the races were legally separated.

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: You come to democratic America, and that's when the real hate starts coming at you.

NOAH: Yeah (laughter). That is the irony of life, so I guess - I always tell people - I go I feel like in a strange way, I'm home. You know, this doesn't shock me. This is just - I've come a long way to be in a place that is extremely familiar to me.

GROSS: Your book is called "Born A Crime" because you are officially the product of a crime. Your mother is black, and your father is white - part Swiss, part German. And your book opens with the law - with a word-for-word version of the law that made that relationship illegal.

NOAH: Yeah.

GROSS: It's the reason why your book is called "Born A Crime." I want you to actually read the wording of this 1927 South African law.

NOAH: So this is the Immorality Act of 1927 (reading) to prohibit illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives and other acts in relation thereto. Be it enacted by the King's most excellent Majesty, the Senate and the House of Assembly of the Union of South Africa as follows. Point number one - any European male who has illicit carnal intercourse with a native female and any native male who has illicit carnal intercourse with a European female shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years. Any native female who permits any European male to have illicit carnal intercourse with her and any European female who permits any native male to have illicit carnal intercourse with her shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding four years.

GROSS: How old were you when you first heard about this law?

NOAH: I don't even remember hearing about it. I just knew about it. I was born into it, so I don't remember my parents ever saying it to me. I don't remember a conversation ever being had around this. I just knew this to be the law because that's what I was growing up in during that time in South Africa.

GROSS: So how aware were you growing up that you were the product of a crime and if people saw you, they might realize that your mother was officially guilty?

NOAH: I wasn't aware at all, and I was really lucky that I wasn't aware because I think that would have changed my childhood and my view on the world drastically. You know, I existed in a space where my mother was a black woman and my father was a white man. And that's how I saw the world. I was just like, you know, some dads are whites and some moms are black. And that's how it is.

GROSS: But that's not how it was in South Africa.

NOAH: Definitely, yeah.

GROSS: So how were you protected so that you were able to see yourself and your parents that way?

NOAH: Well, it was just how my parents treated me. It was the world they decided to show me. I was really sheltered. My grandmother kept me locked in the house when I was staying, you know, with the family and so-and-so. And every household, for instance, had to have a registry of everyone who lived in that house. And so the police would check in on you randomly, and they would come into the house, and they would look through that registry and look at all the names of all the people who were registered to be living in the house. And they would, you know, cross-reference that with the actual inhabitants of the dwelling.

And I was never on that piece of paper. I was always hidden. My grandmother would hide me somewhere if the police did show up. And it was a constant game of hide and seek. But I didn't know why anything was happening. You're a child. If you're told to go to the bedroom, and, you know, go under the bed, then you go under the bed. But you don't - I never saw it as a fearful moment. I never saw it as something that was governing my life because I was so young that I didn't ask questions.

GROSS: The way you describe it in your book, your mother and your father were friends. And she saw him in a way as her protector because she was in a world that was predominantly white at the time, and they would kind of go to places that were like underground so that you could kind of be black and white together and - no?

NOAH: Well, no, she didn't see him as a protector, but rather what happened was I guess - that was more on a personal side. So my mom liked the fact that my dad was distant, and that's what I talk about in the book so she didn't feel that she was unsafe with him as a person. With regards to the underground spaces, those were the places where many people mixed if they wanted to mix which was against the law. My mother was part of that group. My father was part of that group. People who were black and whites and Indian and Asian and you came together and said we choose to mix at the risk of being arrested. And so they did.

GROSS: So how was the law enforced? Like if - were people supposed to be snitching on your parents?

NOAH: Yes. That's predominantly the way it works.

GROSS: Were they - people were encouraged to snitch.

NOAH: People were encouraged to snitch. It was a police state, so there were police everywhere. There were undercover police. There were uniformed police. The state was being surveilled the entire time. You know, communications were monitored, and anyone could snitch. You know, it could be your neighbor if you were living in a white area. It could be your neighbor if you were living in a black area.

A lot of black people worked with the police as snitches. We used to call them bimpees (ph) where I grew up. And, you know, they were afforded special privileges. They may have been paid by the police, but you never knew who was informing on you. We lived either next door to or two doors away from us was a known informant in Soweto. And this was a black man, and, you know, he was working with the apartheid police to help curtail any resistance that may arise.

GROSS: So I'm wondering, given the climate that you grew up with where snitching was encouraged, where the relationship your parents had was illegal, where black people in the townships had to register, they had to carry IDs, when you hear about the possibility of Muslims having to register under the Trump administration, what do you think about?

NOAH: I think it's - I think it's despicable. I also think it's frightening that we seem to live through history over and over again. And I don't know if I'm the only one. I feel like when you read through history books, you always judge those people in that time. You always go, how could they let that happen? How did that come to be? And then you hear whisperings of that in the time that we live in.

And I always say to people, you know - someone goes, oh, well, what are you going to do about terrorist attacks and Muslims? We got to do something, and I go, don't let those in power trick you out of your freedoms by using your fear, you know? It's the reason the United States fell into the Patriot Act because they were reacting. We all do that as human beings, you know? It's what my mom would call shopping on an empty stomach. You're going to buy food that you shouldn't because at the time you are reacting to your hunger.

And people should always be wary of that because the precedent is set, and it's so much easier to build on a foundation than it is something that doesn't exist. So you see it as something that's happening to people that are not you and then it expands and it expands further. And then one day you're on a registry.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." He has a new memoir called "Born A Crime." We're going to take a short break here and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." He has a new memoir called "Born A Crime." And getting back to your family, your mother was arrested several times during your childhood...

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: ...During apartheid because of her relationship with your father because they had carnal sexual intercourse...

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: ...And (laughter) you were the product of that. So how much time would you estimate she actually spent in prison?

NOAH: I was really lucky in that my mom and dad never got caught in the act, so to speak. So my mom was caught fraternizing with my dad. My mom was caught, you know, in the building that my father lived in. My mom was caught in a white neighborhood past curfew without the right permits. My mother was caught in transition, and that was key because had she been caught in the act, then, as the law says, she could have spent anywhere up to four years in prison.

So on and off my mom would spend a week in jail. She would spend a day in jail here, a week again, a week and a half, two weeks. My grandmother tells me stories of how, you know, because I would be at the house I wouldn't notice that my mom was gone because she would be at work sometimes. So it was just like time when my mom would be gone and my grandma would tell me she'll be back. And nobody knew where anybody was.

The police didn't afford you a phone call. You just disappeared for a while. And what was scary was we lived in a state where some people disappeared forever. You know, if the police believed that they were planning any form of resistance against the state, then you were just gone. Nobody knew where you were, and you just hoped to see that family member again.

GROSS: I found it interesting that there were black people who also hated your mother for having relations with a white man. You tell a story about being in a minibus, which basically functioned like a taxi 'cause there were no taxis in the townships. So you're in a minibus, and the driver realizing that you are your mother's son, you know, figures out that she must have had relations with a white man. And he starts calling her a whore.

NOAH: Yeah.

GROSS: And she tells you when the minibus slows down, you got to jump. And she, like, throws you out of the van. And you had an infant brother at the time. So she jumps out holding him in such a way to protect him when she jumps out. And then you had to hit the ground and run. But anyways - so it must have been totally bizarre to get that kind of hatred from black people, too.

NOAH: But that's the sadness, and I guess that is the strange part of the human brain that, you know, people have studied for eons is hatred and self-hatred. You know, people going, how can you hate somebody that is of you? But that's what people do successfully in any regime that is governed by hate. You can convince people that the problem is not coming from the top but it is rather being created by the people who are being oppressed.

And so what the apartheid system was really good at doing was convincing groups to hate one another. And so what you do is you convince black people that the reason they are being oppressed is because there were some within their community who just can't behave. And if only they could behave, then everyone else would have more freedoms and liberties, which of course is not true.

But if you can - if you can convince people of that, then you can get them to focus their hatred on their fellow man who is trying to achieve freedom as opposed to focusing on the oppressive government. And we see that happen all over the world, regardless of race. It's a tactic that is used over and over successfully.

GROSS: There are articles that mention - and I don't think you mentioned this in your book - that your mother was half-Jewish. Is that right?

NOAH: My mother converted. So when people - when people say that, my mom converted to Judaism.

GROSS: Oh, so she didn't have a Jewish parent.

NOAH: No, no, no, no, no, no.

GROSS: When did she convert to Judaism?

NOAH: When I was 10 or 11 years old.

GROSS: She's so Christian in the book.

NOAH: Yeah, and then I think when you look at religion, you look at where Christianity came from, you know, my mom delved deeper into that. And she felt a deep connection, and she wanted to go as deep as possible into - into - into the world of religion. And that took her into Judaism.


NOAH: Yeah. So then I lived my life as a - as a part-white, part-black but then sometimes-Jewish kid. And I didn't understand 'cause she didn't make me convert. So, you know, I just had - we had instances - like, for instance, when I turned 13, she threw me a bar mitzvah. But nobody came.

GROSS: You had a bar mitzvah?

NOAH: Yeah, but nobody came because nobody knew what the hell that was. I only had black friends. No one knows what the hell you're doing. So it's just me and my mom. And she's celebrating, and she's reading things to me in Hebrew. I don't know what's going on. And she's telling me that now I'm a man. And I'm like, is - does that mean I have no chores? And she's like, no, you still have chores, but you're a man. I didn't understand most - most of it.

I mean, I still live today with my mom sending me, you know, Hebrew Scriptures or, you know, phrases or celebrating - you know, she'll write me an email and it'll be Shanah Tovah, and the next day it'll be something else, baruch hashem adonai. And I - I'm lost half of the time, but that was the world that I grew up in.

GROSS: You must've been so confused.

NOAH: I really was.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NOAH: I really was, and I think that was the gift my mother gave me. I think that was part of her religious pursuits. My mother's always looking for answers. She's always searching for new information. I think she has a thirst for hunger that very few possess innately.

And so my mother never, never stagnated in a place where she said, I have it all. She went, OK, I've read the Bible. I've read the Bible again. I'm reading the Bible again. OK, let me - where does this Bible come from? What does this Old Testament speak - who are the Israelites? Who - what is Judaism? And then she went, and I'm going to study that. And, you know, she wanted to almost get to the core.

You know how they say the book has been translated. And so my mother said, well, then I want to read the untranslated version. I want to read it the way it was written. But this - she applied this to everything in our lives. And that was not staying in the space that you are was supposed to be in, whether it be racially, whether it be in a community, whether it be gender norms.

Whatever it was, my mom said, I'm going to seek out more. And so I was constantly confused, which is sometimes a little bit, you know, disorienting. But I feel like it leads to a way more colorful life.

GROSS: Your mother sounds incredibly brave because she was always kind of flaunting the law. When she married your stepfather, who's - they're separated now.

NOAH: Yes. Yeah.

GROSS: He wanted her to be, like, the traditional wife, and she refused to...

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: ...Be that. She - like you said, she just defied all conventions when she wanted to. And she talked back to people. I mean, she...

NOAH: (Laughter) It's funny you say that because when I wrote the book, I thought that I was the hero of my story. And in writing it, I came to realize over time that my mom was the hero. And I was, you know - I was just her punk-ass sidekick.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NOAH: I was lucky to come along for the ride. She really is an amazing woman, and the world we lived in, in South Africa at the time, was a very matriarchal society because so many black men had been removed from the home...

GROSS: Either in prison or in exile.

NOAH: ...Either in prison or in exile or even sent off to work in the mines. And, you know - and so families were living separately from the fathers. And so although, according to African culture, men were the head of the household, the truth is women were the ones who were raising everybody, including men. And growing up with my mother, that was something I really learned to appreciate.

GROSS: My guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show" and the author of the new memoir "Born A Crime." Coming up, when he was a teenager deprived of his rights because of the color of his skin, what made the situation even worse? Acne. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." He has a new memoir called "Born A Crime," about growing up in South Africa, the son of a black mother and white father, a relationship that was illegal when he was born during the apartheid era, which mandated separation by color.

Because your mother was black and your father was white and you - you were officially designated as colored...

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: ...In South Africa, wherever you were, you were the anomaly.

NOAH: I was.

GROSS: Yeah. And so it was always hard for you to figure out like where do you fit? And you seemed to have learned so many ways of dealing with that including learning different languages and different dialects. So how many languages do you speak?

NOAH: I speak six currently.

GROSS: Name them.

NOAH: So I speak English, obviously, Afrikaans which is a derivative of Dutch that we have in South Africa. And then I speak African languages, so I speak Zulu. I speak Xhosa. I speak Tswana, and I speak Tsonga. And like - so those are my language at the core. And then I don't claim German, but I can have a conversation in it. So I'm trying to make that officially my seventh language and then hopefully I can learn Spanish.

GROSS: And it sounds like this is something you picked up from your mother who also spoke several languages...

NOAH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And used them in a very kind of cunning way when she needed to to make sure that she wasn't, you know, imprisoned - although she was in prison (laughter).

NOAH: Yeah, but she got out of many situations.

GROSS: She got of it sometimes.

NOAH: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. And so there's a passage from your book that I'd like you to read that's about how your mother used language and how you use language...


GROSS: ...To help navigate difficult situations.

NOAH: (Reading) Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world. We were in a shop once, and the shopkeeper right in front of us turned to a security guard and he said it in Afrikaans (speaking Afrikaans) - follow those blacks in case they steal something. My mother turned around and said in beautiful fluent Afrikaans (speaking Afrikaans) - why don't you follow these blacks so you can help them find what they're looking for? (Speaking Afrikaans) the man said, apologizing in Afrikaans. Then - and this was the funny thing - he didn't apologize for being racist. He merely apologized for aiming his racism at us. Oh, I'm so sorry, he said, I thought you were like the other blacks. You know how they love to steal. I learned to use language like my mother did.

I would simulcast, give you the program in your own tongue. I get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. Where are you from? They'd ask. I'd reply in whatever language they'd addressed me in using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion and then the suspicious look would disappear. Oh, OK. I thought you were a stranger. We're good then. It became a tool that served me my whole life. One day as a young man, I was walking down the streets and a group of Zulu guys was walking behind me closing in on me, and I could hear them talking to one another about how they were going to mug me. (Speaking Zulu). Let's get this white guy. You go to his left, and I'll come up behind him. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't run, so I just spun around real quick and said (speaking Zulu). Yo, guys, why don't we just mug someone together? I'm ready. Let's do it. They looked shocked for a moment, and then they started laughing. Oh, sorry, dude. We thought you were something else. We weren't trying to take anything from you. We were trying to steal from white people. Have a good day, man.

They were ready to do to me violent harm until they felt that we were part of the same tribe, and then we were cool. That and so many other smaller incidents in my life made me realize that language even more than color defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn't change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn't look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.

GROSS: That's Trevor Noah reading from his new memoir "Born A Crime." I like that passage so much in part because when I hear you on "The Daily Show" and in some of your standup comedy that I've heard on recording, you do accents and voices so well. Like, you can mimic other people really well, and it seems like that's something you learned to do out of self-preservation when you were young.

NOAH: Yeah, definitely. I think it was something I inherited from my mother who learned to do it. It's, you know - I, like a baby duckling, was merely mimicking the survival traits that my mother possessed. And I came to learn very quickly that language was a powerful, powerful tool.

Language and accents govern so much of how people think about other people, you know, and it's been happening since the beginning of time. I mean, even now in America, you know, when people say they hate immigrants. They're not referring to a Canadian immigrant. You know, they're not referring to somebody who has an accent who is slightly different to theirs.

It's often that voice that throws you off because I sometimes think it's the - you know what it is? It's when you hear somebody speaking in an accent, it's almost like they're invading your language while they're speaking to you because if you hear someone speak another language, you almost don't care. But when they speak your language with an accent, it feels like an invasion of something that belongs to you and immediately we change.

GROSS: Do you know what I think? Yeah. I think people think that people with accents that are a little hard to understand must be stupid...

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: ...Because you don't understand what they're saying.

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: And therefore they're not smart.

NOAH: Yeah. That's - I've seen that everywhere. I've seen that everywhere. People, you know - people make jokes about that. And that was funny. When I first came to the U.S. - because I do accents and I've traveled the world...

GROSS: Yeah.

NOAH: ...And I have friends of almost every single ethnicity, and I would mimic them. And when I came to the U.S., I remember one day we're at "The Daily Show," and I mimicked my Chinese friend. And the guys at the show were like, oh, hey, don't ever do that again. And that's really racist.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NOAH: You shouldn't do that. And I said what do you mean it's racist? And they said, oh, you can't do a Chinese accent that's - and I said I'm not doing a Chinese accent. I'm doing my friend's accent. And they said, yeah, you can't do that. And I said, OK, but can I do a Russian accent? And they said, yeah, yeah, of course, you can do that. I said in a British accent? They said yeah, yeah, go ahead. And I couldn't understand.

And then I came to realize obviously because of the historical, you know, significance of that accent and how, you know, people who had Chinese accents will continue to have Chinese accents in America are treated as being stupid or not as intelligent as an English speaker who is fluent with an American accent. I came to realize why, but it's always fascinated me how quickly you can change where you stand with another human being just based on how you speak.

GROSS: One other thing about language I found this amazing in your book that you watched American TV shows, but they were broadcast in different languages. But if you wanted to hear it in the original American English you could simulcast it on the radio.

NOAH: Yeah.

GROSS: So you sometimes did that but what was your reaction when you heard the programs in their actual original voices?

NOAH: Oh, they - sometimes it was mind-blowing. There were some characters that I knew of like - I remember for most of my life, I grew up and Nightrider was, you know - David Hasselhoff was a Dutch character in my world. I guess in some ways he still is today. But, yeah, it was weird for me because there were certain characters who I had ideas of. Again, I came to realize the power and the importance of language. And it's more than just language and the way we perceive it.

If you look at this election, I feel like Donald Trump was speaking a different language to Hillary Clinton. You know, it's not dissimilar to what we saw in South Africa with our president Jacob Zuma. I remember sitting with people laughing when they would watch the debates, and they'd go this guy's a buffoon. Oh, man, he has such a low word count. He's got the grammar of a 5-year-old. He has the - you know, vocabulary of a toddler. And I said, yeah, but do know how many people find that appealing right now? He's up there and everybody understands what he's saying. And they were like, oh, can you imagine this guy as a president? And I said, yeah, but think of how many people who for the first time are listening to a presidential candidate understanding every single, quote, unquote, "policy" that he puts forward.

And sometimes that's a thing that I will call them, you know, like elites, not even liberal elites, just people who are educated. They forget sometimes that communication is more important than your grasp of language. You know, can you communicate effectively with a person? That's what I learned as a comedian. I remember one time I went on a little bender I tried to learn as many words as I could from the dictionary. And I thought I'm going to increase my vocabulary on stage. I'm going to expand my word count. My word cloud will be immense.

And I got onstage, and I lost half of the audience because half of the people in the audience were going we don't know what perambulate means. Why do we have to think about this? And I realized you've got to be careful in deciding what your intention is. Are you using language, you know, as a flourish or are you trying to communicate as effectively as possible with another human being? And that's what Donald Trump, in my opinion, did very, very well.

GROSS: Do you find yourself code switching in the U.S.?

NOAH: I do. I do definitely, depending on where I am. And code switching is fun for me. You know, I don't even do it intentionally. I just find, speaking to one person, I change a few words; I change my tone; I change my accent slightly. It's a seamless transition that I do without even thinking, like a chameleon. I don't think that I'm doing it. I just do it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show," and now he has a memoir called "Born A Crime." We're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." He has a new book, a memoir called "Born A Crime."

We talked about this a little bit the last time you were on the show. Your mother married the man who became your stepfather. He was an alcoholic. He was abusive. He beat her several times. And then when you were a teenager, he shot her.

NOAH: No I was in my early 20s when he shot her.

GROSS: Your early 20s.

NOAH: Yeah.

GROSS: OK. And he shot her twice?

NOAH: Shot her twice, once in the head, once in the lower torso.

GROSS: And she - she could have died. But it was almost literally a miracle that she survived because - tell us the trajectory of the bullet.

NOAH: Yeah. I mean, till this day, it's, you know - it's something we - no one understands. It's - the doctor use the term miracle, and he said, I hate using this term. He said, I'm a man of science. I'm a doctor. I don't use this word. But he said, it's a miracle your mom's alive.

She got shot in the back of the head. The bullet went in through where the spine basically connects to the brain. But it didn't hit the spine, missed all of the nerves and the veins. And it went in the back of her head, past just below the brain and then, on the exit, was aiming for the eye socket, but - was going to come out of the eye, but it hit the lower part of her eye socket. And the impact deflected the bullet. And so it came out of her nose, and so it ripped off one of her nostrils. But relatively speaking, the damage was was really little for a bullet being shot into your head.

GROSS: She was home in four days, back at work in seven days...

NOAH: (Laughter) She was.

GROSS: ...Which is kind of remarkable. But when you were a kid and your mother married this man who later shot her, it - judging from your memoir, you knew that there was something sinister and dangerous about him. And you worried about them getting married. You didn't want him...

NOAH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Around. And so I'm wondering, like, your mother just seems so smart about so many things. Did you lose - so much has been said about abusive relationships and how it's hard to get out of them and everything. But what was it like for you as a child to see your mother making what you believed - and what you turned out to be right - was a terrible judgment call?

NOAH: I mean, I learned, and I've come to learn as an adult that love is a hell of a drug. It's one of the most dangerous things that human beings can have. It's also one of the most beautiful things that human beings can possess because love, on one hand, gives you the ability to care for a human being sometimes more than you would care for yourself. Love, unfortunately, sometimes gives you the ability to forgive somebody and blind yourself to the truth.

And, you know, I lived in a world where I didn't share the love for my stepfather that my mother shared for him. She married him, you know? And I - I loved my mom. But I - I lived in the space where I was constantly afraid of the threats.

And I don't think I can ever judge any person for being involved in an abusive relationship, especially because of the amount of surprise that it comes with. You know, anyone who's in that situation, to go from a place where everything is going well - I will never forget the first time my mother was hit. It comes out of nowhere. You don't know what it is because it's never happened to you.

GROSS: Your mother, for the most part, was an incredibly brave woman, willing to defy convention, stand up to people, go her own way, pay the consequences. But on the whole, she sounds, like, really unflinching. And in the job you have now, you have to be that way, too. You have to stand up for things and not be afraid of criticism, not be afraid of offending people when you think the comedy is correctly hitting a satirical target. Do you feel like you inherited some of your mother's bravery or that you learned how to be brave from her? And if so, like, what are the things now that you feel like you have to be brave about?

NOAH: I think I - I was lucky enough to be in the shadow of giants. You know, my mom's magic dust sprinkled on me, and I hope I have enough of it to be as brave as she was and continues to be. Doing what I do now, I've come to realize now more so than ever that I have to approach what I - what I do every day on "The Daily Show" with complete honesty.

You know, funny enough, one of the biggest moments of realization was when Donald Trump won the election because when I came into the show, I said, I think this guy can win. This was when he first came down that escalator. He gave his first speech. And then I was like, wow, this guy's going to do well. And I remember man - people laughed at me. People were like, oh, you silly ignorant person who's just come to this world. You clearly shouldn't be at "The Daily Show" because you don't know what you're talking about.

And I was like, but I don't know. He seems like he connects with people. I can relate to him as a performer. I can see what tools he's using. He's good at riffing. He's good at taking the crowd on a journey. I can see what he's doing. And people would say - and all throughout the race - and there were times when on the show I would mention it. You know, I mean, that's why I said Trump reminds me of an African dictator. And that's where that came from because everyone said to me this guy is - he's just a fool. He's just - he's a buffoon.

I said, yeah, you can say that, but I've seen this before. I have seen this before. I've seen clowns that go on to take over their countries. I've seen buffoons who end up ruling their worlds. And it came to pass. And I've just come to realize I'm going to share my point of view. Some people won't like me for it, some people will. I will work every day to be as honest as I can because I do believe that we're all trying to get to the same place. But various people have tricked us into believing that we are not.

And I see America going into that space. And I know that in South Africa, we were in that space and we're still suffering from that space. And that was where a government very successfully convinced the majority of a population that every single person there was blocking the other people from achieving greatness in the country only to realize that we were all being oppressed at the same time.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." We're going to take a short break and then we'll be right back. He has a new memoir that's called "Born A Crime." This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." He has a new memoir about growing up in South Africa. It's called "Born A Crime." And he was born a crime in the sense that his mother is black, his father white. And when they conceived him, it was illegal in apartheid South Africa for a black person and a white person to have relations.

I want to ask you another question about your life. We've talked about how race and being biracial affected you growing up in South Africa. You mention in the book that you had terrible acne as a teenager, like, really bad.

NOAH: Yeah.

GROSS: OK. So that affects how people literally see you. It...

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: ...Covers your face. So people were already seeing you through a certain lens because of your race, you know, because of being biracial and you didn't fit in any place as a result of that. How did having acne complicate your whole sense of identity?

NOAH: Well, the one thing I was lucky - I feel I was lucky about is when this happened I was in high school. And during the period I was in high school, race almost went out of the window because high school was oftentimes almost like a classist society. But the classism isn't about money. It's about coolness. What is your cool factor? How much cool do you possess? And that determines where you go.

Are you good at sports? Then you get to go into the coolest places. Are you super good looking? Then you get to be in the cool club and so on and so forth. And I possessed none of those qualities. I wasn't good at sports. I was on the chess team.


NOAH: I had such bad acne. I mean, people ask me now, they go, well, let me see pictures. I'm like I didn't take pictures for that reason. I shied away from any type of photograph that you would find because I've thought that I was hideous because in my eyes I was. You know, I had giant nodules on my face, around my neck. And, you know, the pus would ooze out of them. And I had to go on medication repeatedly and the medication makes you suicidal and depressed and then you have to go off it because of your kidneys. And it was just such a trying time.

And, I mean, in school, that's your cache. How you look and what you can do determine everything in school. And, you know, so because of that - luckily I wasn't the only kid so I was one of those kids who just stayed in a corner and watched the world pass them by. And I think if anything, the biggest knock that you experience in that world is - in terms of your identity is you feel like you are less than you are. You feel like you don't have the right to belong. You know, you're watching the world and the world exists without you.

GROSS: You mentioned that the medication led to the depression. And in - The New York Times Sunday Book Review has a Q and A called By the Book. And you were interviewed for that. I think it was in that that you said - the question was what books would you have that we would be surprised that you were reading. And you said self-help books about depression.

NOAH: Yes.


NOAH: Yeah, that's one of the biggest things. And I'm proud to say that. That's another stigma that I think we need to get rid of is improving our minds and our mental health. You know, when when you suffer from depression, you go this is something that I have and I can work on it, you know? I often think of depression, though, as more of a - as more of a symptom than a cause.

You know, I go - I trace depression back to things. So I go, OK, I look back and I say my self-esteem was affected because of my skin and because my family had no money and I was ashamed of how poor I was. And I look at all of that and I was trying to hide myself. And so I felt like I was less than I was. And so that then leads to you being depressed. And I work on these things.

You know, and I think all of us should seek help, and not help is in a - you know, help shouldn't be seen as a frightening thing. Help shouldn't be seen as a weak thing. You get help at the gym. No one complains about that. You get help from your trainer. That's commonplace, and I think we need to spend more time doing that with mental help. You know, a lot of us have issues that we don't work on and we don't deal with, and I try. I try my utmost.

GROSS: So one more thing, I'm thinking, like, when you took over "The Daily Show" after Jon Stewart left, there was a sense of, OK, we have a biracial president, now we have a biracial host of "The Daily Show."


GROSS: You know, like - you know, so, like, there's this kind of...

NOAH: Both half African. What are the chances?

GROSS: Both half African, exactly, so there's some kind of like he's not American but there's the simpatico, you know, with, like, the moment that we're living in politically. And now, like, things are really shifting politically. And I still think there's this sense of, like, you have this sense of the times but it's coming from a different part of you than...

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: ...You know? Would you talk to that?

NOAH: It's interesting. It's funny that you just mentioned that. I've never thought of it like that before, that simpatico. I feel like it's almost fitting - isn't it? - that when there was a half-black-half-white-half-African man, he was in the White House, he was being mocked by Donald Trump. I think it's only fitting that now Donald Trump gets mocked by a half-black-half-white-half-African man when he's in the White House. So I feel like that actually worked out. I never thought of that.

But, yeah, I do feel like I have a sense of the times. A lot of the things America is experiencing now, I feel like I have lived through. I think there is a cause for concern. But I also warn people - and again, I said this on the show, you know, to a lot of people, don't make it hyperbole. Don't get outraged over things you shouldn't.

Oh, Trump ditched his press pool. That's just stupid and funny. Get over it. You know, Clinton ditched his press pool. This is something presidents do sometimes. Don't make everything that Trump does a scandal because what'll happen is you'll diminish the real scandals, you know? You've got to get over the fact that you hate the person and rather focus on what you're trying to do.

When I was learning how to box, that was the number one thing my trainer taught me. He said you can't get angry at every single time I hit you because that's why you're here. You're going to get hit. Acknowledge that you're going to get hit and now focus on how you're going to fight properly. And living through the times is exactly the right way to put it because I have seen a slice of this only on a different continent.

GROSS: Trevor Noah, thank you so much.

NOAH: Thank you for having me. Thank you. I'm a huge fan, so thank you very - this is great that we get to be in the same studio for a change.

GROSS: Trevor Noah is the host of "The Daily Show" and the author of the new memoir "Born A Crime." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


SHARON JONES: (Singing) One-hundred days, 100 nights to know a man's heart...

GROSS: We'll listen back to two interviews with soul singer Sharon Jones. She died Friday at age 60 of pancreatic cancer. Jones, who is often called the female James Brown, was the subject of a documentary released over the summer. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Mooj Zadie. I'm Terry Gross.


JONES: (Singing) When his true, his true self unfolds, yes it does. He may be mellow, he may be kind, treat you good all the time. But there's something just beyond what he's told. One-hundred days, 100 nights to know a man's heart. One hundred days, 100 nights to know a man's heart. And a little more, before, he knows his own. Wait a minute, maybe I need to slow it down just a little, take my time.

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