Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Girl Who Smiled Beads - Clemantine Wamariya

Summary: A riveting story of dislocation, survival, and the power of stories to break or save us.

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 fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering 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 twelve, she and her sister were granted asylum in the United States, where she embarked on another journey--to excavate her past and, after years of being made to feel less than human, claim her individuality.

Raw, urgent, and bracingly original, The Girl Who Smiled Beads captures the true costs and aftershocks of war: what is forever destroyed; what can be repaired; the fragility of memory; the disorientation that comes of other people seeing you only as broken--thinking you need, and want, to be saved. But it is about more than the brutality of war. It is about owning your experiences, about the life we create: intricately detailed, painful, beautiful, a work in progress.

Review: Remember that scene when Oprah reunited the family split apart by the Rwandan genocide? There were tears and cheers, the whole audience cried, Oprah solidified herself as  America’s fairy godmother, and it was super heartwarming. But what about after the cameramen shouted “Cut!”? What happened to get them to that point? What happened to their relationship after?

Clemantine Wamariya was so young when she and her sister fled the genocide. The goal was to stay with her grandmother until things calmed down, but the mobs that engulfed Rwanda didn’t stick to the cities. Her story, the story of flight and survival, the story of bouncing from refugee camp to refugee camp, of growing up without a country, relying on her sister to be mother, father, family, and friend, and of her eventual asylum in America is the side of the stories we don’t know. 

With the struggles in Sudan not settling down anytime soon, and with the ongoing debate of what to do with refugees, The Girl Who Smiled Beads aims to change the ignorance that surrounds the label of refugee. Wamariya’s experiences, so beautifully and hauntingly detailed here, give the reader the opportunity to see more than a byline. These experiences throw off the shroud of stereotype that those who have never been a refugee all carry, exposing the truth of the struggle refugees have of supporting themselves, of fear of becoming obsolete or nothing but a burden, of the loss and uncertainty that comes with admittance into a camp.

I don’t know about many, but I always thought I understood it as much as I could without having been in this experience. I’d never thought of the boredom that comes with running. The fear of trying to join the black market had never occurred to me. The nuance and the reality struck me, so much so that this book stayed with me for weeks. I found myself literally incapable of starting another book until I’d come to grips with what I’d read, and encouraging everyone I knew who knew how to read to join me in this incredible, heart wrenching, life-altering journey. Even better, I’ve lost count of how many friends who heard about the book when I obsessively posted about it, and who have turned around and asked me “Have you heard of this incredible book!? Wait, did you tell me about it? Isn’t it amazing??”

Trust me, it’s that good. It’s not an easy read, but it’s definitely worth your time.

Rating: Five stars


For the Sensitive Reader: Given how difficult and how terrifying life is for two young women on their own, this is quite clean. There are some beatings that are described. At the end of the book, Wamariya addresses sexual assault in the most respectful acknowledgement and condemnation I’ve ever read.

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