Clemantine Wamariya: The Author of Her Own Life

photo: Julie Zave

Clemantine Wamariya is a storyteller and human rights advocate. Born in Kigali, Rwanda, and displaced by conflict, Wamariya migrated throughout seven African countries as a child. At age 12, she was granted refugee status in the United States and went on to receive a BA in Comparative Literature from Yale University. She lives in San Francisco. The Girl Who Smiled Beads (Crown, April 2018) chronicles her amazing life story and is her first book.

The title of your book comes from a story your nanny told you as a young girl. Why, of all the stories she told you, do you think that particular one stayed so clear in your mind through the years?

That story was magic! When my nanny, Mukamana, told me about the girl who smiled beads, she did not just lay out the plot. She invited me to shape the tale. She set out this character, this miraculous, beautiful girl who smiled beads. Then she set that girl in the world--first in her mother's house, then walking the earth--and each step of the way Mukamana asked, "And what do you think happened next?" Whatever I said, Mukamana told me I was right. The story allowed me to believe I controlled my own destiny. It allowed to me to try and make sense of a universe I could not understand. By the time I was six, the universe had turned upside down. I understood so little. What were borders? Why did people hate us? Why did we need papers to flee war and seek peace? Almost everything external told me that I was nothing, that I had no authorship over my life, no control. The Girl Who Smiled Beads was the antidote to all that.

I love this quote from your book, "When I'm angry, I think in Swahili because that's the language in which I learned to fully express my emotions." What Swahili words describe your emotions about publishing this book?

Haraka haraka haina baraka. It's a bit hard to translate. Literally it means, Fast fast, there is no luck. The point is, if you're in a hurry, you'll miss out on the good stuff. Writing this book and releasing it into the world is thrilling, but there's a panic to it. I feel like I've been in pieces for months! I worked so slowly for years, on my survival, on my education, on reading and writing. And now, my goodness, it feels like such a rush. Haraka haraka haina baraka. That's my reminder to myself to try to slow down. I want to take a moment and enjoy it. This book is about so many people and the result of so many people sharing with me. If I rush, I fear I'll miss out on all I have to learn from the experience of sharing the book with the world.

You had to take on the identity of the people in each of the many places you traveled and lived. Now that you've been in the United States for almost two decades, have you unearthed the real Clemantine?

Describing myself is not one of my strengths! I used to feel so frustrated that I couldn't produce a simple description of who I am or even what I do. But I recently made peace with this. Who I am and what I'm doing depends on who I am with. As a child, I learned to adapt. I had to. And even now, I place a lot of value on place and circumstance and interpersonal exchanges. For example, I have a friend who spends most of day cleaning Chestnut Street, a very busy commercial strip near the bay in San Francisco. Every time we see each other, we stop, talk, and find something to smile about. To Calvin, I am the girl on Chestnut Street with a yoga mat who pauses to laugh and chat. I don't need to be a Yale grad or a humanitarian or a former refugee to him. It's better to just connect as two people sharing a street. Refusing to be frozen as a particular character is now a practice to me. It allows me to try to be intimate and equal with everybody.

You've invited some of your audiences to think about questions such as "How are you aware of your privilege?" What has been the response?

This question is really hard for audiences, but I do expect a straight answer, even when it causes discomfort. How do you see yourself in the context of your life? What are you about? What do you have that others don't and what happened in your past, or your family's past, that allowed you to have those things? People are often so ashamed of their privilege. We really need to think about all the reasons why. Some ways of coming into privilege are, indeed, shameful; many have built fortunes on others' suffering. Yet people do gain privilege honestly, through talent and work.

I also often ask people to repeat the phrase I am... I am... I am…, and fill in the blanks: I am a son. I am British. I am a person with a passport. I am the granddaughter of a woman who fled her country so that her family could survive. I want to give audiences a way to go inside themselves and their identities. Our lives are cluttered with so many labels. I want to peel those back and help people see what's underneath.

In another very powerful part of your book you explain your dislike of the word "genocide," pointing out that every experience is unique: "There's no catchall term that proves you understand." For those who want to work toward a better understanding of others, what do you recommend they do after finishing The Girl Who Smiled Beads?

Ah, this is my favorite question! There is so much amazing literature and art and music and film and there is so much we can learn from it. I'd love for readers to put down this book and pick up John Berger's Ways of Seeing, or go to YouTube to watch the BBC series on which that book is based. It's an amazing education in how we take in the world, what we see and what we miss, and what that teaches us about ourselves. Or read Audre Lorde’s "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." Or listen to Nina Simone's "22nd Century." Or watch Get Out and then read Zadie Smith's glorious essay on the film. As readers of my book will know, I've had life-transforming experiences with literature--early on with Eli Wiesel's Night and later with W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz. Sebald gave me the tools to see and understand myself and the world. I hope my book is just a start for readers--to take apart the word genocide, yes, but also take apart all the small, dark boxes we've put one another in.

If your readers could take away only one lesson or message from The Girl Who Smiled Beads, what would you want that to be?

My hope is that readers will come away remembering that we all have equal humanity. We are all equally valuable, and nothing anybody can do or say can alter that. Our story--I think of the book as our story, not just my story--is deeply personal and specific, but it's also the story of the world. It's about family and all the things that get in the way of family. It's about love and all the things that get in the way of loving ourselves and others. It's about the labels we put on each other and how those labels breed fear by blocking our views of one another's hearts. I sincerely hope each reader has a unique experience with the book. But if there's one message, that's it: we are all equally human. We all need to learn and relearn that basic lesson, every day. --Jen Forbus

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