surviving narratives

Because the references to Cinderella seem to be inevitable whenever someone survives something terrible only to become a celebrity:

Imagine a Cinderella who would like to set aside the tiara and fancy ballgown and its requisite smile for a moment to return to the ashes and the garden for a bit of reflection. She needs for you to understand that all of those plaudits she’s acquired cannot gloss over the earlier trauma that still haunts her. There is still a ticking clock, warning of an hour when the projection and performance turns back into the everyday reality of her life. She wants to address what came before and remind us of what really comes after. She wants you to know that she isn’t always sweetness and light and feminine and charming regardless of her current station or status. She is a human being and she’s still trying to figure it all out.

Also, she is not Cinderella, but a heroine from another story; a story that doesn’t require her to arrive at some perfectly poised and sparkling celebrity with that reassuring smile every time.

 girl who smiled beadsThe Girl Who Smiled Beads : A Story of War and What Comes After by Clementine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

Crown, 2018. Hardcover, 265 pages.

a Memoir. a TEDtalk 

Clementine Wamariya was six years old when she fled Rwandan massacre  with her fifteen-year-old sister Claire. To quote the jacket copy, they “spent the next six years migrating though seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty.”

Granted refugee status in the U.S. at the age of twelve, Clementine and her sister come to live in Chicago; Clementine adopted into a wealthy, white suburban home (during the week), while Claire lives in an inner-city apartment as a single mother of three small children.

While Clementine seems to have blossomed into the American-Dream—High school cheerleader; private boarding school; degree from Yale; Oprah; lauded storyteller on a world-stage—Clementine is a survivor and witness of incredible trauma. It underlies everything, and constantly threatens the stability of that shiny, American narrative.

The way the memoir opens, you see how Clementine’s refugee story defines how she has come to be known, one effort in an attempt to find a survivable narrative. But all is not like it appears on television, dear readers. There is a story of what comes before and after both that life-defining event and the massacre.

The structuring of the book also demonstrates how Clementine’s past inserts itself in the present; her journey in Africa intercuts with her journey once stateside. Yet, not only does the Africa-timeline inform Clementine’s American-timeline, what she learns in America informs the way she processes her past flight and survival. As a bibliophile, I could appreciate the way books helped her find language and perspective; writers like Elie Wiesel, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, W.G. Sebald.

From the earliest years of her life, stories help Clementine make sense of the world, thus the title of the memoir. “The Girl Who Smiled Beads” is a story she learned as a child from her nanny Mukamana. You’ll find the story and the reason for its influence at the end of the memoir as it is only later that Clementine realizes its impact, and is able to utilize it to tell the story you’ll come to read (aka the memoir).

Some levels of understanding or connection are not wholly possible, other than through story. And Clementine agitates family members for their remembrances, their own narratives. She’s met with resistance, and is left to what interpretive skills she’s honed. The reconciliation over her conflict with familial narratives steeped in religion is hard won, and yet fully realized. The jury still seems to be out on the question of forgiveness; there is no question on the matter forgetting. There is to be no forgetting and she calls bull-shit on the pretending otherwise; citing nightmares, physical expression, and the absolute refusal to respond to the gentlest story-prompts. And so disconnectedness and resentment and assumptions continue.

As much as this is a memoir about Clementine, it is a story about Claire as well. Nearly every mention of Claire will come with a minor digression on how she moves about in the world, often in contrast to Clementine or other people. The sense of awe that translates manages to escape a cloying effect only because what Clementine finds admirable is truly remarkable.

The narrative is limited to Clementine’s perspective, but you sense Claire has helped provide some (limited) details. That said, part of Clementine’s frustration as a child and adult is the limitations of what information is made available to her. She struggles with her own story, which is compounded by others denying her (and themselves) the stories they carry, stories that would help her better understand her own. The struggles of the child in Africa, moved by the sudden and often inexplicable decisions of the older people in her life, echoes in the teenager and young adult Clementine who is left wondering how to navigate each turn of events.

While there is a reckoning on the individual level, there is one to be had on a collective level. Clementine reveals the disconnect that not addressing a collective history has on a family’s ability to reconnect later, in the after. She describes activities Rwandan communities partake in in order to collectively address their history in an effort to reconnect as family members and neighbors. It’s beautiful, and undoubtedly painful.

Clementine and Claire experience flight in Africa and life in America in very different ways and toward different outcomes. First off, there is a nine year difference, and the power dynamic is incredible. Clementine is completely dependent upon Claire’s desire or sense of duty to not abandon her. Clementine tries to find ways to lessen that differential, taking care of her niece and then nephew, for example; or maintaining the household. But Claire has the physical presence, prowess, and agility—except when she doesn’t. The memoir’s continuous conversation on the distribution of power across ethnicity, sex, gender, age, ability, strength, hustle, citizenship, is alone worth the read. The vulnerability of a woman’s body is a story that Clementine wants to engage the reader in—and every reader should engage in that conversation. The struggle for autonomy is real, and continual. Clementine struggles for this not only in the abstraction (of mind, self), but physically, in her body. It proves an open-ended question in the memoir, this seeking and finding.

Another significant difference between the sisters is how they experience America. Claire seems to find resonance in the history of slavery and Jim Crow as well as the present-day racism of the U.S., where Clementine finds none. Clementine blames it on geography (white suburbia’s insulation vs inner-city realities). It also could be that Claire doesn’t seem to live as constantly in her history of Africa like Clementine does. Belgium’s colonization of Rwanda and its consequences haunt Clementine. Despite the fact that Claire does live in the multicultural landscape of the diaspora—speaking multiple African languages and interacting with the refugees and immigrants in her community frequently (if not daily), she doesn’t want to revisit Africa the way Clementine does (or can’t help but do). Clementine ponders the question of whether a person or community or country can afford to address or not address their past, let alone their trauma.

And how does one even articulate trauma—theirs or their country’s? Clementine is transparent with said struggle. At times she feels hypocritical, performative, packaged to sell or to placate. She struggles with the desire to be seen, to be known, and what that could mean if it is scarred or full of rage. The Girl Who Smiled Beads is unapologetically angry…and you can sense the struggle to make this a palatable memoir for those new to hearing the stories of refugees, of war, of brutality. Even as the memoir requires mediation, it despises it.

The tempering in the narrative will likely make Clementine’s memoir more accessible and digestible by those who new and needing to hear her story. But I share the frustration Clementine vocalizes in that throttling back, those cautious revelations. That said, I’m unlikely prepared for Clementine Wamariya unleashed by conventions (cultural or narrative), because something that does translate well is that the effects of genocide, the trauma it inflicts, is quite deep and dark and horrible. Ms. Wamariya’s efforts to confront it is remarkable and awe-inspiring…and as she argues in the memoir: marvelously human.

Other aspects of note:

It is fascinating how moving her story is, yet how little you are compelled to pity her. Bravo.

Also, if you are anticipating a description of rape in a woman’s refugee story, you may be surprised by the approach to that subject/presence in this memoir.

The author’s conversation on faith and religion and the stories we tell ourselves.

Her perspective on relief organizations, guilt, and privilege.

How difficult it is to grasp the breadth/reach of the atrocities.

Her mother’s “orange” approach to life, page 176/Chapter 14.

Recommended for readers of memoirs; those interested in refugees and immigrants;; those who read stories by African authors &/or those set in Africa; for book clubs.

For readers of Wiesel, Morrison, Lorde, Achebe, Sebald, you’ll appreciate the internalization of their work.



Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

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