This book is a true gift. I am very grateful that Wamariya chose to share her story with the world. I think we, as readers and consumers, can often feel entitled to read great stories. I think we feel we deserve to be educated and entertained. The Girl Who Smiled beads is an ever present reminder, that every book, every story, is the work of someone else. It is their labor of love and struggle, and that they are making a choice to share that with us. We should be humbled to be in the presence of someone else’s journey, and we should be grateful. This book made me grateful.
If you are not familiar with this book, here is more information for you.
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.
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.
Clemantine and her sister Claire go on extraordinary journey, except its not extraordinary. It is all too common. It is the story of civil war. It is the story of death and violence. It is the story of becoming a refugee. It is one telling of this story, that too many know too well. Wamariya makes the point of reminding us that it is us, that are inadequate, we can not take in all the unique stories of suffering. So instead, we find ways to make certain ones the special ones. The ones we are willing to see.
The story as told by Wamariya to Weil is fantastic. The poetry in the language is beautiful and it brings so much depth and emotion. Wamariya is willing to get vulnerable. She is willing to be flawed for us. The structure of the book is not linear, we jump from event to event, year to year, we are sorting through Wamariya’s life with her. Looking for clues as to who she is and how she grew into her self. She is angry and bitter, she is distrustful, she is also a caretaker and a witness to so many. She will not let us see her, or her sister, as only victims.
While there are parts of the book I would have loved to hear more about (her relationship to Black Americans, the conflicts in Africa she experiences, her day to day acclimation in Chicago), this book is full. It is rich with thoughtful analysis of ones own journey, which is so hard to do. To be truly examines one self is no easy task.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads is in line with other books about children who grow up in war torn African countries and find their way to America. Two that I am particularly fond of, What is the What by Dave Eggers, and A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. While the other two books are more concerned with historical context and the telling of a cohesive story, I found this book to be more thoughtful, more introspective, and more concerned with the greater narrative of suffering that we inflict upon one another.
While there are parts of this book that are disturbing and emotional, I would suggest you read it. I would suggest you bear witness to Wamariya and her journey.
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