Sunday, November 27, 2022

two memoirs

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Spiegel & Grau, 2016)
I once remarked that, at the time of his birth, Barack Obama would have been illegal in half the U.S. states, and got a pedantic response to the effect that it was his parents' marriage, not his existence, that was illegal. That was before Trevor Noah's book was published with its bold and, it turns out, accurate title. There was a classification in apartheid law for mixed-race people, but they were assumed to have been that way for many generations. If the authorities had learned that Noah was the first generation of his mixed-race line, he as well as his parents would have been in big trouble.
Nor were his parents married. His mother, whom he depicts throughout this book as a truly remarkable woman, just decided to pick a white man of foreign origin and (with his permission, I assume) have a baby. Then she had to pretend she was just caretaking him whenever they went out in public.
Life in the black precincts of South Africa is a very strange thing to a white Western reader, but Noah is very good at explaining what's going on in a clear and light, amusing fashion even when the contents are dire. I had none of the "huh? I can't picture this; I don't get what's going on here" that I did on reading Kipling's Kim. Noah's most brilliant piece of explanation comes when he gets to his first local fame, as a DJ at dance parties in the ghetto. (Which he built up to out of previous success as a music bootlegger - another long story.) At these parties, he tells us, there'd often be a popular display dancer whom the audience would cheer on by his name. His name was Hitler.
Noah lets this surreal, actually goofy, scene of people cheering on the dancing Hitler go on for a while before he explains. South African blacks often give their children two names, one in their native language and one that white people can pronounce. The latter is often the name of a famous person, and to South African blacks, Hitler is just another famous person. He doesn't carry the charge that he does for whites. If a black could go back in time and kill one evil person, Noah says, it'd probably be Cecil Rhodes. It wouldn't be Adolf Hitler. And so, Hitler's namesake dances at DJ parties. Amazing stuff.

Tammy Duckworth, Every Day Is a Gift: A Memoir (Twelve, 2021)
I read somewhere that Duckworth was inspired by Noah's memoir into writing her own. Even if so, they're very different. Duckworth, if you need the reminder, is the half-white half-Thai Army helicopter pilot who lost both legs in Iraq and is now a Senator from Illinois.
But that's about all I knew about her. She doesn't say a lot about her mother, who's actually Chinese by ancestry but was born in Thailand and considers herself Thai. Tammy (a nickname: her birth name is the Thai Ladda) says a lot more about her father, a scion of old but poor Virginia stock who made his career in southeast Asia because, his daughter tells us frankly, he could be a bigger shot there than at home. For a while. Eventually his career sputters out, hope springs eternal but he can't get another job on the level he's had, and he's too proud to become whatever the equivalent of Walmart greeters is they have in Indonesia, which is where they're living at the time.
Tammy escapes from this by going back to the US - which she's barely previously visited - for an education and then joins the Army, signing up as a helicopter pilot because that's the closest a woman can get to combat. Eventually she gets too close for comfort, and tells the tale of the day her legs got blown off in a straightforward fashion, emotional only in the sense that you feel she wishes she could go back to Iraq and do it all again.
For if one thing is clear from this book, it's that Duckworth is a real Army grunt, if you can use that term for an officer. All the dirt and smudge and raunchy jokes - she tells a few in this book - are the life for her, even the packages of candy from home that melt in the Iraqi heat and arrive as masses of kludge. It's the details like that that make this a really readable book. For instance, she finds there's only one firm selling women's cotton underwear (you don't want nylon: it'll melt and bond with your skin in a fire) that'll ship to Iraq: Victoria's Secret, so that's what she wears. This becomes of importance when it turns out that, if you're wounded and taken away, everything in your kit is distributed to other soldiers.
After that, her time in the hospital and in physical therapy comes off as a doddle, though she insists that it was nothing of the sort. But she's so strong and determined, she brushes the challenge off.

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