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The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

The Girl Who Smiled Beads


We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil, on your first book!

by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

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Quick take

The eye-opening, true story of two sisters who escape the Rwandan genocide and start life anew in Chicago.

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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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The Girl Who Smiled Beads


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, near 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 Zairean 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.

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Why I love it

As a full-time writer and woman of color, I choose my books carefully. I am naturally drawn to vivid narratives from underrepresented voices, and, for me, Clemantine Wamariya’s memoir of life after the Rwandan genocide is a revelatory example of just that. In her story, as in her life, she is extraordinarily well-spoken and fiercely courageous. She grabbed me and refused to let go.

Clemantine was only six years old when her home country of Rwanda erupted into genocide, forcing her and her older sister to flee—for six years—from one refugee camp to another. After crossing seven African countries and enduring hunger, prison, and abuse, they were granted refugee status and sent to Chicago. There, with the help of a new, generous family, Clemantine began to put her life back together. She was a success story, and yet, in her heart, she still felt like a refugee—scattered, afraid, belonging nowhere.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads left me with a disarming truth: Survival is not just about staying alive. I love Clemantine’s story because though it’s deeply personal, it forces us to reckon with our own humanity—it smacked me awake to the injustices of the world. A raw, magnetic account of loss and dislocation, trauma and reconciliation, I am a better person for having read it.

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Member ratings (4,675)

  • Shannon C.

    Fairbanks, AK

    Thought provoking good read. I can’t believe the audacity and arrogance of commenters who dislike it saying I can sympathize, I’m sorry but, she’s too bitter. You’ve missed the forrest for the trees.

  • Stanzie K.

    Lincoln, RI

    Heartbreaking, while at the same time inspiring. Sometimes there are people who just make you realize that ‘strong’ is a relative term - as exemplified here by such incredible strength and resilience.

  • Annie R.

    Oklahoma City, OK

    Clementine’s story was remarkable, and with everything she had been through it’s inspiring that she is choosing to share her story. This book made me step back and think with a different perspective.

  • Kaley H.

    Germantown, TN

    What a privilege to read this story. It’s humbling to be able to read through details of someone’s story, and the loss, heartbreak, bravery, and persistence these sisters showed was/is remarkable.

  • Mariah S.

    Middleton, WI

    What a story. The author does a great job of allowing the reader to dive in to what war torn countries and their inhabitants deal with—things most of us couldn’t fathom. A story of amazing courage.

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