Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when 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. 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.
...[a] remarkable memoir ... Forget raw and pure: Wamariya’s quest is to create some semblance of moral and emotional coherence out of a life that too often feels like a self-corroding performance ... The fractured form of her own narrative—deftly toggling between her African and American odysseys—gives troubled memory its dark due.
The sections of the book describing the sisters’ search for safety in Rwanda are told in impressionistic sketches from a 6-year-old’s point of view: a confusion of unknown menaces and destinations. Only later do we learn the specifics of the mass killings. The technique doesn’t fully work when the narrative turns to Wamariya’s stay in a lakeside town in Zaire — later the Democratic Republic of Congo — initially a happy period, beautifully detailed in the book, that descends into terror when that country, too, erupts into conflict. The passages on war here are vague, a litany of violence and despair presented without context or explanation. Yet 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.
Clemantine writes candidly about the moment that turned her into 'the Oprah Girl,' and how that role has been both a blessing and a burden ... The Girl Who Smiled Beads is at once terrifying and life-affirming. And like those memoirs, it painstakingly describes the human cost of war.