In the most important way, this book was hard to read and harder still to put down. Clemantine Wamariya’s voice is strong, sure, and unafraid to be vulnerable, angry, flawed, and human. This is not a feel-good, rags-to-riches refugee story; nor does it sensationalize the horrors that Clemantine and her sister (and so many others) experienced. Instead, we are granted the incredible gift of sitting beside Wamariya as she constructs and claims the narrative of her experience, and figures out how it fits into the larger narrative of how we treat our fellow humans. Recommended By Madeline S., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
A riveting story of dislocation, survival, and the power of the imagination to save us.
“The plot provided by the universe was filled with starvation, war and rape. I would not — could not — live in that tale.”
Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her 15-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety — perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.
When Clemantine was 12, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States; there, in Chicago, their lives diverged. Though their bond remained unbreakable, Claire, who had for so long protected and provided for Clemantine, was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, while Clemantine was taken in by a family who raised her as their own. She seemed to live the American dream: attending private school, taking up cheerleading, and, ultimately, graduating from Yale. Yet the years of being treated as less than human, of going hungry and seeing death, could not be erased. She felt at the same time six years old and one hundred years old.
In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine provokes us to look beyond the label of “victim” and recognize the power of the imagination to transcend even the most profound injuries and aftershocks. Devastating yet beautiful, and bracingly original, it is a powerful testament to her commitment to constructing a life on her own terms.
“This book is not a conventional story about war and its aftermath; it’s a powerful coming-of-age story in which a girl explores her identity in the wake of a brutal war that destroyed her family and home. Wamariya is an exceptional narrator and her story is unforgettable.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“In her prose as in her life, Wamariya is brave, intelligent, and generous. Sliding easily between past and present, this memoir is a soulful, searing story about how families survive.”
“At once heart-breaking and hopeful, [Wamariya's] story is about power and helplessness, loneliness and identity, and the strange juxtaposition of poverty and privilege....This beautifully written and touching account goes beyond the horror of war to recall the lived experience of a child trying to make sense of violence and strife. Intimate and lyrical, the narrative flows from Wamariya’s early experience to her life in the United States with equal grace. A must-read.”
Library Journal (starred review)
“In the aftermath of the Holocaust, witnesses and survivors shared reflections that changed our moral understanding of good and evil and all that lies between. In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine Wamariya has written a defining, luminescent memoir that shines a sharp light on the dark forces that roil our age. If you read this book — and once you read the first page, you will not put it down — you will never think about political violence, displacement, or the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship the same way again. Wamariya tells the story of her discombobulating resettlement in the United States as a teenager, following her harrowing experiences in the Rwandan genocide and as a refugee roaming the African continent in search of a home. Wamariya is unsparing in her criticisms of Western indifference and moral presumptuousness, and she subjects her own judgments and values to the same withering scrutiny, revealing a young woman that figures out how to survive but struggles to learn how to live. Her gripping and brutally honest reflections inspire us to count our blessings and summon us to follow her fierce and unrelenting example to try to help build the world we wish to see.” Samantha Power, author of "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide; Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School
“Extraordinary and heart-rending. Wamariya is as fiercely talented as she is courageous.”
Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
About the Author
Clemantine Wamariya is a storyteller and human rights advocate. Born in Kigali, Rwanda, displaced by conflict, Clemantine migrated throughout seven African countries as a child. At age twelve, she was granted refugee status in the United States and went on to receive a BA in Comparative Literature from Yale University. She lives in San Francisco.
Elizabeth Weil is a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor to Outside magazine, and writes frequently for Vogue and other publications. She is the recipient of a New York Press Club Award for her feature reporting, a Lowell Thomas Award for her travel writing, and a GLAAD Award for her coverage of LGBT issues. In addition, her work has been a finalist for a National Magazine Award, a James Beard Award, and a Dart Award for coverage of trauma. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two daughters.
Clemantine Wamariya, Elizabeth Weil on PowellsBooks.Blog
I have almost no photographs, no relics or mementos, no trail of objects to commemorate the gruesomeness and beauty of the days, months, and years my sister Claire and I spent trying to survive. We left Rwanda when I was six and she was fifteen. First my parents sent us from our home in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, to our grandmother’s house in the country...