Race is a key theme in the memoir because South Africa is a place where someone's race determines many details of their life, and also because it is a constant source of tension and confusion for Trevor. He fully belongs neither in the Black nor the White communities, and he is constantly made to feel different from others because of his mixed racial heritage. Trevor's personal experience of racial ambiguity is juxtaposed against an exploration of how South Africa has made race an individual's defining characteristic. As Leon de Kock explains, "expressions of Self are often marked by a simultaneous setting apart from various Others. And yet it is precisely such attempted setting apart that marks the South African subject as fractured" (pg. 266).
There are 11 official languages in South Africa, and, along with race and culture, language is used as a major way for groups to classify who belongs and who is considered an outsider. Alongside being racially ambiguous, Trevor also speaks multiple languages, and this allows him to easily fit in with different groups who might otherwise not be accepting of him. Trevor's language skills allow him to broaden his horizons and move between different communities, giving him a degree of freedom and flexibility which not many South Africans possess.
Family is a key theme in the memoir, being mainly represented via Trevor's loving but complex relationship with his mother, Patricia. Other family members such as his grandparents, cousins, father, and younger brothers play secondary roles. Family is sometimes a source of pain and confusion for Trevor, as he does not initially understand why his mother is so strict with him. Additionally, when Trevor is a very young child, both of his parents have to hide their relationship with him. Nonetheless, the unconditional love and values he receives from his mother are a defining force in Trevor's identity.
The memoir follows Trevor as he progresses from a young child with very limited awareness of the world around him to a young man who can think critically and make decisions about the life he wants to live. Many of the incidents Trevor chooses to narrate are ones where he learns a key lesson and moves towards greater maturity and deeper self-understanding. For example, the incident at prom teaches him about being more respectful and attentive to women, rather than focusing solely on their looks, while the incident where he meets with his father after a long absence teaches him that relationships cannot be forced but rather have to grow organically between people. The memoir creates a structure for Trevor to turn seemingly random memories into a chain of events that helped him to mature and grow over time.
The memoir is constructed both to tell the story of Trevor's personal history and to offer a broader reflection on the history of South Africa. By juxtaposing personal and national histories, the memoir hints at how the two are interconnected. Trevor would not have been the same person if he had grown up in any other place: much of his identity and experience is directly tied to the way in which race was embedded in the history and politics of South Africa. The focus on ordinary and comical events in Trevor's life also serves to challenge and unsettle ideas of what history means. Most people would assume that a history of South Africa would focus on major political movements and profiles of famous leaders. However, Trevor's story implies that history also encompasses individual lives and experiences.
Trevor's life is marked by violence and the threat of violence. Whether it is being threatened by a mini-bus driver while riding with his mother as a child,or being afraid of being assaulted during the time he spends in jail, Trevor often has to cope with the reality that living in South Africa as a colored man means facing dangerous situations. He is also impacted by domestic violence when his stepfather becomes abusive towards both him and his mother. Culminating with his mother's shooting, Trevor's experience of violence forces him to confront assumptions he holds and also helps him to realize just how important his mother is to him.
Trevor grows up primarily raised by women, without a lot of male role models, but he nonetheless absorbs ideas of what he thinks masculinity should look like. As he gets older, he tries to enact different forms of masculinity by trying to make himself physically attractive, pursuing girls, trying to make money, and trying to become popular. He also observes other men and their values, such as when he notices the tension between his mother and stepfather due to Abel wanting a very traditional wife who respects his authority without question. Trevor's vision of what masculinity should look like is shaped by his close bond with his mother and a deepened understanding of how different people can embody masculinity in different ways.
Born a Crime Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Born a Crime is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
In context, our given names are assigned...... our nicknames are earned based upon our personality or looks. In other words, nicknames likely are a better fit for those who earn them..... but not always.
Important themes presented in the novel, Born a Crime, include race, language, growing up, history, violence, and masculinity. You can find a detailed explanantion of each of these themes in GradeSaver's study guide for this unit.