Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Review: The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

Genocide. When you read that word, you probably think of the Holocaust. But that is certainly not the only genocide in recent memory. There's the Armenian genocide, the Cambodian genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, and the Rwandan genocide which pitted the Hutu against the Tutsi. And these examples are probably not the only ones, they're just the ones I came up with off the top of my head. I learned about them in various history classes and read about the genocides and their aftermath in books like Baking Cakes in Kigali and In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills. But both of those, wonderful as they are, are fiction. Clemantine Wamariya's The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a memoir, an actual lived experience by a girl too young initially to understand the terror that forever changed her life.

In 1994, when war came to Kigali, Clemantine's mother told her fifteen year old sister Claire to take six year old Clemantine and flee to relatives where the child and the teenager would hopefully be safe. But eventually the men came there too and Clemantine and Claire had to flee again, and again, and again. These children of war sought safety in seven different African countries, living and moving on from refugee camp to refugee camp, trying to build a life over six long and hunted years before finally being granted asylum in the US. They fled war and unfriendly authorities both, witnessing great acts of kindness and unimaginable atrocities. They lost contact with their family, never knowing if their parents and other siblings were alive or dead. And even in the relative safety of the US, Wamariya didn't feel settled, living with her sister and her sister's family only at weekends and with sponsors during the week.

This is the story of Wamariya's life, her own experience of "war and what comes after" narrated through the voice of a child. The child's perspective is authentic given that she was only six when her whole world imploded but that perspective sacrifices even the slightest background of the war for those readers who aren't already familiar with it. And perhaps that backstory doesn't matter in the beginning but its lack gives no reference to how huge and tragic this was for so very many, focusing it solely on one young woman and her sister and their personal, horrific experiences. The memoir moves back and forth in time between Wamariya's life in the US and her life trying to survive the horrors of war and displacement, giving the narration a fragmented feel. And although this is a terrible story, one that the reader can hardly believe was perpetrated on anyone, never mind a child, there is something of an emotional remove to it. Maybe this is because Wamariya, understandably, can't or won't fully revisit the horror and it feels terrible to have wanted more depth, but I did. It seems almost trite to say that she is resilient and impressive and incredibly intelligent, scarred and hurt, and yes, lucky, but she is all those things and this memoir is her way of owning all the pieces of who she is. Critiquing a memoir of such tragedy and inhumanity is difficult and this one is no exception. It is an important story, one that I'm glad was told but the confusing back and forth of the narrative line makes it more difficult for the reader to truly comprehend the sheer scope Wamariya's story. The subject matter is interesting but the writing just didn't quite grab me as much I'd hoped.

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