I had no right to be privy to any of your thoughts, but you wrote this book, and I am glad. Humans are terrible to each other. Clemantine, you experienced one of the most explicit expressions of this terribleness, a horror someone who did not experience genocide cannot imagine. Still, your words resonate with those who have experienced other traumas, other erasures, other human cruelty. And I thank you for you words and the beads you smiled, though these beads are hardly mine to consume.
I feel I am honored to be part of the human
To be one of the trillions
beat, beat, beaten down
but who consistently, and
like the minute hand come round the 6,
and get back on their feet.
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.