The Girl Who Smiled Beads

A Story of War and What Comes After



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April 24, 2018 | ISBN 9780451495341

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April 24, 2018 | ISBN 9780525526292

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About the Book

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “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 fifteen-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 twelve, 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.
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Praise for The Girl Who Smiled Beads

Winner of the 2019 ALA/YALSA Alex Award

A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2018
A Glamour Best Book of 2018
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2018
A Real Simple Best Book of 2018

“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."—Washington Post

“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’s memoir proves how the human spirit can triumph. It truly floored me."—Elisabeth Egan, Glamour


"Gripping . . . It is our human tragedy that there will always be war, and that there will always be displaced people. Memoirs that show exactly what that means, exactly what the toll is, are vital."—The Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Wamariya (along with Outside contributor Elizabeth Weil) tells . . . her story—which, yes, is often extremely tough—with brilliance.” —Outside

“Heartbreaking and honest, this important memoir explores the lasting effects that trauma and destruction have on an individual and emphasizes the human ability to overcome it all and build a new future—even when that new life comes with horrors of its own.” —Real Simple

“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."Bustle

“Riveting . . . [A] poetically written, searchingly honest memoir.”—National Catholic Reporter

"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.”—Kirkus Reviews

“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.”—Booklist
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The Girl Who Smiled Beads

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

The night before we taped the Oprah show, in 2006, I met my sister Claire at her apartment in a public housing unit in Edgewater, where she lived with the three kids she’d had before age twenty-two, thanks to her ex-husband, an aid worker who’d pursued her at a refugee camp. A black limo arrived and drove us to downtown Chicago, to the Omni Hotel, where my sister used to work. I now can’t think about that moment without also thinking about my own naïveté, but at the time all I felt was elated.


I was eighteen, a junior at New Trier High School, living Monday through Friday with the Thomas family in Kenilworth, a fancy suburb. I belonged to the church youth group. I ran track. I’d played Fantine in the school production of Les Misérables. I was whoever anybody wanted me to be.


Claire, meanwhile, remained steadfast, herself, a seemingly rougher bargain. Unlike me, she was not a child when we got resettled in the United States, so nobody sent her to school or took her in or filled her up with resources—piano lessons, speech therapists, cheerleading camp. Claire just kept hustling. For a while she made a living throwing parties, selling drinks and hiring DJs who mixed American hip-hop, the Congolese superstar Papa Wemba, and French rap. But then she learned it was illegal to sell liquor without a license and she started working full-time as a maid, cleaning two hundred hotel rooms a week.


All I knew about the show we were taping was that it was a two-part series: the first segment showed Oprah and Elie Wiesel visiting Auschwitz, God help us; the second featured the fifty winners of Oprah’s high school essay contest. Like the other winners, I had written about Wiesel’s book Night, his gutting story of surviving the Holocaust, and why it was still relevant today. The book disarmed me. I found it thrilling, and it made me ashamed. Wiesel had words that I did not have to describe the experiences of my early life.


I’d dictated my essay to Mrs. Thomas, as she sat in her tasteful Midwestern house—gracious lawn, mahogany floors—at a huge old computer that took up the whole desk. “Clemantine,” she’d said, “you have to enter. I just know you’ll win.” Mrs. Thomas had three children of her own, plus me. I called her “my American mother” and she called me “my African daughter.” She packed my lunch every day and drove me to school.


In my essay I said that maybe if Rwandans had read Night, they wouldn’t have decided to kill one another.


• • •


On the way to downtown Chicago, Claire and I had the inevitable conversation—is this happening? This is so weird—which was as close as my sister and I got to discussing what

had happened to our lives. If we absolutely had to name our past in each other’s presence, we’d call it “the war.” But we tried not to do that, and that day we were both so consumed by all the remembering and willful forgetting that when we arrived at the Omni and the bellhop asked, “Do you have any bags?” we realized we’d left all our clothes at home.


Claire took the L back to her apartment, where a friend was watching her children—Mariette, who was almost ten; Freddy, who was eight; and Michele, who was five. I stayed in the hotel room, lost.


Harpo Studios gave us each a $150 stipend for dinner. It was more than Claire’s monthly food stamp allowance. When Claire returned we ordered room service. We woke at 4:00 a.m. and spent hours getting dressed.




That day, for the show, the producers directed us to the huge studio. Oprah sat onstage on a white love seat, next to tired old Elie Wiesel in a white overstuffed chair. He was alive, old but alive, which meant the world to me. He kept looking at the audience, like he had a lot to say but there was no time to say it.


In this nice studio, in front of all these well-dressed people, Oprah’s team played the video of Oprah and Elie Wiesel walking arm in arm through snow-covered Auschwitz, discussing the Holocaust.


Then the producers gave us a break. We sat in silence. Some of us were horrified and others were crying.


After that, Oprah said glowing things about all the winners of the essay contest except me. I told myself this was fine. Fine. I hadn’t really gone to school until age thirteen, and when I was seven I’d celebrated Christmas in a refugee camp in Burundi with a shoebox of pencils that I’d buried

under our tent so that nobody would steal it. Being in the audience was enough, right? Plus, I kept wanting to say to Oprah: Do you know how many years, and across how many miles, Claire has been talking about meeting you?


But then Oprah leaned forward and said, “So, Clemantine, before you left Africa, did you ever find your parents?”


I had a mike cord tucked under my black TV blazer and a battery pack clipped to my black TV pants, so I should have suspected something like this was coming. “No,” I said. “We tried UNICEF . . . , we tried everywhere, walking around, searching and searching and searching.”


“So when was the last time you saw them?” she asked.


“It was 1994,” I said, “when I had no idea what was going on.”


“Well, I have a letter from your parents,” Oprah said, as though we’d won a game show. “Clemantine and Claire, come on up here!”


Claire held on to me. She was shaking, but she kept on her toughest, most skeptical face, because she knows more about the world than I do, and also because she refused to think, even after all we’d been through, that anybody was better or more important than she was. When we were dirt poor and alone, she’d be in her seventh hour of scrubbing someone’s laundry by hand and she’d see on a TV an image of Angelina Jolie, swaggering and gleaming, radiating moral superiority, and even then Claire would say, “Who is that? God? You, you’re human. Nothing separates me from you.”


I have never been Claire. I have never been inviolable. Often, still, my own life story feels fragmented, like beads unstrung. Each time I scoop up my memories, the assortment is slightly different. I worry, at times, that I’ll always be lost inside. I worry that I’ll be forever confused. But that day I leapt up onto the set, smiling. One of the most valuable skills I’d learned while trying to survive as a refugee was reading what other people wanted me to do.


“This is from your family, in Rwanda,” Oprah said, handing me an envelope. She looked solemn, confident in her purpose. “From your father and your mother and your sisters and your brother.”


Claire and I did know that our parents were alive. We knew they’d lost everything—my father’s business, my mother’s garden—and that they now lived in a shack on the outskirts of Kigali. We talked to them on the phone, but only rarely because—how do you start? Why didn’t you look harder for us? How are you? I’m fine, thanks, I’ve been working at the Gap and I’ve found it’s much easier to learn to read English if you also listen to audiobooks.


I opened the envelope and pulled out a sheet of blue paper. Then Oprah put her hand on mine to stop me from unfolding the letter. It was a huge relief. I didn’t want to have a breakdown on TV.


 “You don’t have to read it right now, in front of all these people,” Oprah said. “You don’t have to read it in front of all these people . . .” She paused, master of stagecraft that she is. “Because . . . because . . . your family . . . IS HERE!”


I started walking backward. Claire’s jaw unhinged in a caricature of shock. Then a door that had images of barbed wire on it—created especially for this particular episode, I assume, to evoke life in an internment camp—opened stage right and out came an eight-year-old boy, who was apparently my brother. He was followed by my father, in a dark suit, salmon shirt, and tie; a shiny new five-year-old sister; my mother in a long blue dress; and my sister Claudette, now taller than me. I’d last seen her when she was two years old and I still believed my mother had picked her up from the fruit market.


I’d fantasized about this moment so many times. In Malawi, I used to write my name in dust on trucks, hoping my mother would see my loopy cursive Clemantine and realize that I was alive. In Zaire, I’d saved coins so I could buy my parents presents. In Tanzania, I’d collected marbles for my older brother, Pudi, who wasn’t there for this reunion. Pudi was dead.


Claire remained frozen. But I, in my TV clothes and blown-out hair, ran toward my Oprah-produced family, arms outstretched. I hugged my brother. I hugged my father. I hugged my tiny little sister. I hugged my mother, but my knees gave out and she had to pick me up. Then I hugged her. I hugged Claudette, my little sister, little no more. I walked across the stage and hugged Oprah. I hugged lovely, weathered Elie Wiesel.


The cameras were so far away that I forgot I was participating in a million-viewer spectacle, that my experience, my joy and pain, were being consumed by the masses, though I was aware enough to realize that everybody in the audience was crying.




A few hours later, though it seemed like minutes, we found ourselves on the sidewalk outside the studio, and my family took a black limo north to my sister’s apartment. She lived in the front unit in a squat brick low-rise, across the street from the L tracks and a block away from an abandoned wooden house with a gable roof, a once fantastic, now forgotten home that I hoped would someday be ours. I would put everybody in it. We would be a family again.


Nobody talked in the car. In the apartment, nobody knew what to do, either. My mother, in her long blue dress, kept sitting down and standing up and touching everything—the living room walls, the TV remote—and singing about how God had protected us and now we must serve and love him. My father kept smiling, as though someone he mistrusted were taking pictures of him. Claire remained nearly catatonic: rocking, stone-faced. I thought she’d finally gone crazy, for real.


I sat on Claire’s couch, looking at my strange new siblings, the ones who’d replaced me and Claire. They looked so perfect, their skin unblemished, their eyes alight, like an excellent fictional representation of a family that could have been mine. But they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them and the gap between us was a billion miles wide.


I fell asleep crying on Mariette’s bed and woke still wearing my Oprah shoes.




The next day was Friday. Of course, I didn’t go to school. We needed to start making up for so much lost time. Yet I couldn’t look at my parents—they were ghosts.


I felt gratitude, yes. Oprah had brought my parents to me. But I also felt kicked in the stomach, as though my life were some psychologist’s perverse experiment: Let’s see how far we can take a person down, and then how far we can raise her up, and then let’s see what happens!


Saturday, my family, along with the Thomases, drove up the lakeshore to the Chicago Botanic Garden, where we stared at the Illinois lilies and roses. We all wanted these to be beautiful links to the lilies and roses in Kigali, threads knitting this present to that past, but everything was awkward, and it felt as though cameras were still following us around. Sunday we did Navy Pier—the gaudy Ferris wheel, the sticky cotton candy, all the tourist stuff.


My father kept smiling his fake, pained smile. Mine probably looked the same: a smile covering a scream. Claire barely said a word. Then, Monday morning, my parents and new siblings left on the flight back to Rwanda that Oprah’s people had booked for them, and Mrs. Thomas picked me

up as usual at Claire’s apartment. I had no idea how to make sense of what had just happened. So I just ran out to her Mercedes and she dropped me off at school.

About the Author

Clemantine Wamariya
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. More by Clemantine Wamariya
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About the Author

Elizabeth Weil
Elizabeth Weil is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor to Outside magazine, and frequently writes for Vogue and other publications. She is the recipient of a New York Press Club Award in feature reporting, a Lowell Thomas Award in travel writing, and a GLAAD Media Award for 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. More by Elizabeth Weil
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