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The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After Hardcover – April 24, 2018
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“Sharp, moving... Wamariya and her co-author, Elizabeth Weil... describe Wamariya’s idyllic early childhood in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, and the madness that followed with an analytic eye and, at times, a lyrical honesty.... Wamariya is piercing about her alienation in America and her effort to combat the perception that she is an exotic figure, to be pitied or dismissed.... Wamariya tells her own story with feeling, in vivid prose. She has remade herself, as she explains was necessary to do, on her own terms.”
—Alexis Okeowo, New York Times Book Review
"Like Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, on being a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, or Joseph Kim’s Under the Same Sky, on escaping North Korea, The Girl Who Smiled Beads is at once terrifying and life-affirming. And like those memoirs, it painstakingly describes the human cost of war."
“Remarkable... Wamariya and the journalist Elizabeth Weil set out to sabotage facile uplift.... The fractured form of her own narrative—deftling toggling between her African and American odysseys—gives troubled memory its dark due.”
—Ann Hulbert, The Atlantic
“Wamariya (along with Outside contributor Elizabeth Weil) tells... her story—which, yes, is often extremely tough—with brilliance.”
“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
“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)
“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 this eloquent and engaging memoir, Clemantine Wamariya recalls a childhood spent as a refugee on the run from war, violence, and terror, and a womanhood shaped by those experiences. Affecting and utterly eye-opening, The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a powerful reminder of just how strong and indomitable the human spirit can be."
"Lyrical and hauntingly beautiful. The Girl Who Smiled Beads will inspire you."
—Chanrithy Him, author of When Broken Glass Floats
“A powerful record of the refugee experience... [with] moments of potent self-reckoning.”
“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.”
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.
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The Girl Who Smiled Beads is written by one of those children. Clemantine Wamariya was a pre-schooler when the genocide in Rwanda began. Separated early from her parents and some siblings, she and her teen-aged sister--and soon, that sister's own infants--began a years long trek up and down the African continent away from death and in search of safety. Ultimately, they reached the US. A loving family took Clementine under their wings, and she received an education at the best of suburban schools outside Chicago. While in high school, an essay she wrote comparing her experiences to some of the narrative in Elie Wiesel's Night won her a spot on the Oprah television show. So moved by the story, Oprah's company arranged to have Clementine's parents and siblings flown to New York for a surprise reunion.
This is the Cinderella part of her story, but The Girl Who Smiled Beads provides a far deeper and moving picture of her full experience. There are flashbacks to her life struggling just to find a little clean water for her infant nephew. There is the separate experience of her sister whose life turned out much differently and yet who had grit and persistence few of us would ever be able to generate going through domestic abuse in addition to the life on the run of a refugee. There are honest ruminations of trying to reconcile her life as a suburban teen ager with accepting the now somewhat foreign ways of her more traditional Rwandan parents.
Wamariya openly shares her emotional journey, as she struggles with something like survivor guilt in her years at an exclusive prep school and ultimately Yale, but she also continues to express deep and abiding love for her family, especially that older sister whose strength carried them through the very difficult refugee years.
This is a must-read story for anyone concerned with how the great upheavals of our time are impacting the lives of millions every day. There are times when the story becomes a bit hard to follow, as the author combines narrative of her life in the US with returns to the African journey. However, that may be an asset for us as readers, as it gives perhaps a clearer picture of how someone whose life has been so greatly bifurcated into "before" and "after" might live day to day.
I cannot recommend this enough for all to read and remember every time we see disparaging stories about "refugees" and "immigrants." One can hope that this story might stir more people to begin providing the "kindness of strangers" to others in situations similar to that of all the Wamariyas.
The loss of country, family and even belongings (like the precious ceramic mug she is forced to leave behind) she and her sister face is the backdrop to the heroics and ingenuity of an older sister dragging her little sister all across Africa and finally to the US. The relationship between siblings, parents and foster parents evolves into a heart-wrenching story while we cheer for the twist of fate that changed Clemantine's life and allows her to bring her story to light.
I can’t begin to understand a childhood like Clemantine’s but she offers a glimpse of her experiences, from the chaos and maelstrom of refugee camps and her arrival in the US into a stunning life of privilege.
Most recent customer reviews
Though I enjoyed the story in general it was hard for me to fully connect...Read more
The Girl Who Smiled Beads has been the memoir I’ve most anticipated reading this year, and when I finally got to it,...Read more