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. Then one day, at my grandmother’s farm, there was a knock on the door. The world had become unhinged and murderous. She told us to run. I did not even understand what death was.
I carried a blanket, which turned out to be a towel. That was it. To compensate now, to remember who I am, I almost always travel with my katundu
, my stuff: my pillow, my blanket, a candle to make the room smell like home, and my copy of W. G. Sebald’s book, Austerlitz
, which is my bible, or the closest thing I have to one. Reading Austerlitz
, for me, is like wading in the ocean. Its pages contain infinite creatures, all the world’s possibilities and fears. The book is both the universe and the guide to how all the stars in the universe got their names. Each sentence sends me tumbling into memory and thought. This sentence, for instance: “When space becomes too cramped, the dead, like the living, move out into less densely populated districts where they can rest at a decent distance from each other.”
To me that says: You can’t take me away just because you killed me. Hatred cannot truly destroy life.
So I cling to my katundu
, my objects of memory. I cling to the belief that if I can just find the right arrangement of the pieces of my life — if I can take all the haphazard beads and string them together — I can see my life as beautiful, coherent, whole.
Sometimes, in my apartment, I line the objects up and look at them. I lay out a snapshot that hung in my seventh and eighth grade lockers: Claire, looking happy, sitting on the bed in our first American apartment, beside her older daughter, Mariette, who is four and looks sad.
Next to that I place a square, blue velvet jewelry box containing the diamond heart necklace my American mother, Mrs. Thomas, gave me for my 21st birthday. The necklace was an heirloom, passed down from Mrs. Thomas’s grandmother to Mrs. Thomas’s mother to Mrs. Thomas and now to me. When she gave me the necklace she cried, and I felt loved.
I thought: This is belonging. I’m not just a person who lives with somebody. I belong.
It is a kind of madness: to have everything, now, and still feel something is missing.
I have no order to my objects. No order to my memory either. Sometimes I do not even believe in time. Space, too, becomes detached from geography. We’d been dislodged from the galaxy into a refugee camp only 100 kilometers from home.
Next, on the buffet, I place photocopies of pages from other people’s scrapbooks: images of me wearing too-small borrowed clothes; me, standing next to the son of the American family who first hosted us. He’s wearing a T-shirt that says, "I SURVIVED BASKETBALL CAMP."
I lay out the Chicago State ID card I’d gotten with my mother, the birthday present she recently purchased for me — a little mirror from her neighborhood Dollar Store, pre-inscribed with a poem to a daughter: I will always love you / For forever and a day / You’re the meaning in my life / And precious you will stay.
I set out a museum handbook on Rwandan basket weaving next to the only two snapshots in existence of me as a child in Butare. In one, I’m at my aunt’s wedding, in a white dress. All the other flower girls are wearing white shoes. Mine are black.
I set out a My Little Pony, one of Claire’s youngest daughter’s toys. I once put it in my bag by mistake when I was cleaning Claire’s house.
I set out half a dozen small bags of buttons and beads: vintage nickel buttons from England, embossed with pictures of soldiers and fire; vintage gold buttons from Paris, like the type my mother had on the back of her finest white shirt; hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny colored beads, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny gold ones.
I spill the tiny beads on the floor. I make ornate bracelets out of buttons, but there are two I haven’t been able to finish. One is white and bright orange with a big, gold-embossed button shaped like a sunflower. The other is monotone, tarnished, black.
Next to that is the itinerary I made Claire for her recent visit to San Francisco. A map of Burning Man, which I love but which sends me deep into panic — the memory of the hot, dusty desert, the rows of tents. The map is beautiful and shaped like a clock. On it is a note to myself to remember to bring my tricycle if I ever go back.
Along the back wall, beneath the windows, I set out my books, each one highlighted and lined and flagged. First is The Little Prince
, the first book I ever read in English. Next to it is Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
. This book tortured me. I filled up the first 135 pages with little blue stickies and pink stickies. But Gourevitch understood the problem: History is dangerous.
The cover photo shows an empty chair on the edge of a lake. It could be Lake Tahoe. It looks peaceful and serene. I look at the photo and imagine all the dead bodies on the surface of the water.
I set out Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist
, for its magic; Elie Wiesel’s Night
, because, to me, it’s holy and life-sustaining and I had once touched the man in the flesh and felt greatly comforted to know he was alive, old but alive. I set out a collection of African folktales, though none sound to me like the tales I heard as a small child.
Finally, I set out my field guides, my manuals for decoding American life. First, Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
. It’s too academic to be my favorite of Morrison’s books — The Bluest Eye
is the one I love best. But Playing in the Dark
is the most important to me since in it Morrison breaks down how white American stories depend on certain assumptions about black characters. It reminds me not to fall into the trap of being who you think I am.
Next: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
, my guide to understanding Kenilworth, Yale, status in America. By this point in my life I’ve heard the girls laugh. I know the characters.
I realized what the book could teach me one night, many years ago, after attending a New Year’s party at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida. I was picked up in a limo. Champagne flowed all night. To me, everybody, almost everywhere, appeared to be in costume.
It is a kind of madness: to have everything, now, and still feel something is missing. During my 16 years in the United States, so many people have poured so many resources into my body. I have been fed, educated, analyzed, tutored, coached, and clothed. I do hot yoga daily. I attend thoughtful plays. I sit on panels behind a placard that reads: "Clemantine Wamariya, human rights advocate." I drink expensive juice.
It should be better by now. It looks better by now. But if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that surfaces often deceive. I can play the part; I can wear the bracelets I make, drink tea with friends, lounge in the sun on the pretty grass in the park. But I am still stringing the beads together, still working on creating a life out of lost memories and scrambled time. I know, now, that to feel complete I need joy and peace. Those are the pieces that will make me feel whole.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a storyteller and human rights advocate. Born in Kigali, Rwanda, displaced by conflict, Clemantine migrated through seven African countries as a child. At age 12, 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. The Girl Who Smiled Beads
is her first book.
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.