A Conversation with Clemantine Wamariya

The author speaks on the joy and trauma of writing her memoir, and how home is infinitely more than a physical space.

Clemantine Wamariya

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 15-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They didn’t know if their parents were dead or alive.

When Clemantine was 12, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States, yet their lives diverged. Claire, who for so long protected 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 and eventually 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 and 100 years old. In The Girl Who Smiled BeadsClemantine 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.

Recently, Clemantine spoke with Read It Forward about the wonder of human connectivity, the books that are her intellectual bread and butter, and what it was like to reunite with her parents on Oprah.

Read It Forward: Clemantine, congratulations on The Girl Who Smiled Beads

Clemantine Wamariya:  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

RIF: It’s so moving and gorgeous and emotional to read. What was your experience writing this memoir? Was it painful to go back and dig up these memories, or are they very close to your heart?

CW: It’s been a 10-year process, and first I had no idea what I wanted out of it. It was a feeling that I went with, and the feeling first was unsettled. Along the way, I met all these amazing people who helped me figure out what I really wanted, people like Michael Arthur and Elizabeth Weil, who’s been an incredible listener. Once I finally realized I wanted to share, to dig, I was introduced to her. After that it was traumatizing, it was joyful, it was scary. It was embarrassing sometimes.

It’s the journey of digging deep into yourself and the things you discover if you only dare to dig deep into your memories, your relationship, and your thoughts. It’s been such an incredible journey, but thank goodness I was not alone in it. So many people feeding me, listening to me, editing, hosting me—so it’s not been alone.

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RIF: That’s really powerful. Would you tell us a bit about your story and the journey that The Girl Who Smiled Beads takes us on?

CW: The journey actually begins in my home country of Rwanda, reflecting my curiosity and my childhood, in wanting you to understand what is life, what is death, what are neighbors, friends, what is family.

RIF: Every little girl’s thoughts. 

CW: Every little girl’s thoughts, or anyone who’s really buying the “this is how things are” idea and then not understanding what’s happening. The journey begins in my mother’s garden, and it continues on into eight different countries, seeking refuge from one country after another in East and Southern Africa, living in refugee camps and understanding what that life is like. It’s a life that I’ll never wish for anybody.

It’s the people we met along the way who were strong and funny and beautiful, and the places: Congo, being by Lake Tanganyika, being in the mountains of Burundi, being in the beautiful Indian Ocean in Durban, South Africa, and then to Chicago, trying to survive the winter of Chicago after living in a tropical country. Then into New York, into Connecticut; it’s a whirlwind. It’s everything that I would love for people—it’s being my eyes and experiencing everything too, not just seeing but also feeling everything.

RIF: After not having a home for so long, what does that word mean to you now?

CW: Home is a concept. It’s one of a story that we cling to so deeply. When your home has been really, “here is my couch, here is my this, here is my that,” it becomes like mine. For me, home is where people who are loving are. It could be on the street. It could be inside of a tent. It could be in a place where they’re not given a land, then that is a place called a slum. It could be in the high rises of New York or in the middle of chaos in Mexico City. And the physical piece of a home is so important, especially when the weather—sun, cold—is against you. And personally, because I know what it means to be both on the street, in slums and in refugee camps, in the high rises of New York, in beautiful mansions in Chicago, I share my home because I know the joy of being in the home. So going back to your question, home is where people who love are—because if you love, you share.

RIF: And you just invited me to your home.

CW: Yes, I did.

RIF: What do you hope readers of this memoir learn?

CW: Each individual is unique, so I can’t say, “Here’s what you’re going to take away from the book,” because I don’t know. Just right outside, I met somebody who said, “This one particular line means so much to me,” and then one of my dear friends said, “I have highlighted this, and I come back to it every single day.” I’m not sure if you’ve ever opened the inside of a radio, all those wires that are connected?

RIF: Yes—they’re crisscrossing, wild. 

CW: For me, every human has these different connection points, and those points have that one little light that goes boom. I hope that The Girl Who Smiled Beads enlightens whichever part of your intelligence, because we need more heart. We need the minds, of course, but we need more heart, and so whichever way—if it’s the dancing part, if it’s the crossing Lake Tanganyika, if it’s eating a delicious meal in Zambia, or if it’s being devastated—I hope it’s from a place of joy.

RIF: For me, those passages were the way you speak about books, and how books and the written word were so incredibly healing. You mentioned a few that you were reading: Audre Lorde, W. G. Sebald, Walter Benjamin, Toni Morrison, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which taught you that black is beautiful. Can you tell us about how these words healed and shaped you?

CW: I have this really intimate relationship with my books. When I was going on the road the past few months, I listened to The Four Agreements. And on the plane here, for three hours, that’s all I listened to. It’s one of those books that, for me, is like the ocean, and then there are rivers, and the rivers are these different books, like Audre Lorde, that remind me to feel my deepest feelings, dig deep into my thoughts and feel everything and not reject my emotions and learn how to organize them—that’s my bread and butter. Any day, give me some of that. Feed me Audre Lorde. She encourages us to think about authors and change-makers and mind-shifters, like Malcolm X, like W. G. Sebald, like Toni Morrison, like Maya Angelou, and those who have passed like Nina Simone, to think of them in present terms. So when I speak of Audre Lorde to my friends who have never read her, I speak of her in the present. Audre Lorde is incredible in that she knew our words are so powerful. Our words shape us.

RIF: You wrote a beautiful essay about how you could see your own story in Elie Wiesel’s Night. Talk a little bit about that, and how reading that book helped inform what you had experienced.

CW: There are not that many people who write about the devastation of war in that level of intimacy. What I found more beautiful about Elie Wiesel is the relationship he had with his rabbi, with his father, with all his friends, because he allowed me to reflect on my relationship with my sister, with my mother, with my caregivers, and not be scared. Sometimes when you have faced such a nightmare, it’s so hard to push yourself to remember, even the bad in the good. And I feel like Elie Wiesel really helped me go into that place of remembering and—not to jump in—but with Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye, and Beloved, and Sulato sit in it, you know? To sit in my devastation, and sit in it with Pecola in The Bluest Eye.

She wants to have blue eyes so badly because she wants other people to look at her and say, “You are beautiful, too” but because she is a little girl, she does not know that all she wants is someone to look at her and say, “With all your devastation, you’re beautiful, too.” Between Night and The Bluest Eye, there’s such a connection because it’s so personal. One is a memoir and one is fiction, and for both, it gave me such a comfort to know that I was not alone in my thoughts, and to know that I was not alone in my memories and experiences.

RIF: Books are amazing. Speaking of your relationship with your sister, Claire, how is your relationship with her today, and with her daughter Mariette?

CW: Relationships, especially family, are very funny, and they change completely. Claire, she should be sitting here also doing this interview. When she is ready, she is going to be in this room. She is ready in a different way; she is ready for action. Our relationship now, it’s been shifting. She was my caregiver, and then I was caregiver to her children, and then we teamed up, and I even said in the book, “It’s like it’s our children.” I wanted to command, and demand, that opportunity to be an adult. This is when I was 11. They are our children, and we’re going to take care of them.

Now we’re in that place where we’re both adults and looking eye to eye, and I was like, “It’s our story, it’s our journey.” I sat and focused on it because you have children to take care of, you couldn’t do it, and now I’m ready for her to go full on. That cloud, it’s been lifted, and she is going to walk in a room and people are going to say, “Oh, you’re Claire,” and she’s not even gonna say, “Yes, I am,” she’s like, “What can we do together to take care of our people?”

RIF: Wow.

CW: In the world, just across the street, there are people like Claire, but because we see them through the lens of labels, and we see them too in terms of a hierarchy, we cannot see their goodness. And Claire is about to come and mess that up. I’m just gonna be sitting there writing, and Claire is there messing the whole thing up.

RIF: Totally. She’s a woman of action.

CW: The same as her daughter, Mariette. She puts in one of my calendars, “Auntie Clemantine, I’m directing The Rain Season.” The Rain Season is a collection of these different stories that one of my dear friends put together for the Holocaust Memorial Museum to share different stories of people from Cambodia and South Sudan and Rwanda and Chile, all these different people who survived the devastation of genocide, to bring them together to talk about their childhood. My niece has been on this project maybe for six years, and she decided she’s going to direct it at American University next year.

And I’m just like “Mariette—” But then I realize she has two parents who are constantly shifting and moving things, and so I’m thinking then, “We’re doing this so you could enjoy your life—go sit, go out and dance,” and that’s Mariette.

RIF: She comes by it honestly. 

CW: I’m so scared.

RIF: Was being reunited with your parents, who were back in Rwanda, on the Oprah show, was that a positive experience? It seemed so overwhelming to hear you write it, but of course—to see people you never thought you would see again.

CW: So, just like The Girl Who Smiled Beads, that moment, you could take it whichever way you want. It triggers different sides of each one of us. For me, that day, I don’t have a word for it. Maybe, if I see it happening to someone else, then I’ll be like, “That’s the word.” I could say it was a hallelujah moment because you say hallelujah when you are going crazy or being joyful, right? I had prayed so many times. I didn’t care where I would see my family again.

When I was in South Africa, I saw this man who looked exactly like my father, and he would walk up the hill and return, and walk back from home around 5:30. When I learned a little bit of Zulu, I went to this girl and I said to her, “Your father looks like my father.” But I didn’t say it right; I said, “Your father is my father,” and she flipped on me. I had no idea what I had just said. So I had all of these fantasies.

For me, Oprah and the crew, the producers and the gatherers of that moment—I had no idea what their intentions were but to make me be in the hallelujah moment, or that they had some type of intelligence that I had not yet reached. The fact that other people highlight, like the war, people shooting people, people fleeing conflict in different parts of the world, is being shared and being shown, unites people. That moment is interrogation to our humanity, on how we separate each other by choice, but how also we could bring each other. And I cannot wait to revisit that moment with Oprah or with the crew, but I’m sure in 10 years I’ll look at it, and I’ll have a different view of it.

RIF: Like the radio wires all mixed up.

CW: Exactly. It’s so messy. But there was this little tiny moment, boom. In Italy, there was this woman.  She reached out to me, she was like, “I remember you.” I’ve had people from all over the world wanting to know me because of that moment, because the Oprah show had that penetration to be able to share something. So it was like, “It was not about you girl, chill,” it’s about family being torn apart. It’s about all the things that get in the way of our loving ourselves, loving our family, and loving our community. That moment is a testimony. I don’t like the word “testimony” because it is misused. But look what happens on both angles: it’s two mirrors, the devastation of the conflict in Rwanda and the Holocaust, and all the other holocausts which we cause upon each other. And then the reunion, staring at each other. That’s when you go, “Okay, and what decision do we make now as humans?”

RIF: Clemantine, this has been such an honor to get to talk to you. 

CW: Absolutely, thank you.

CLEMANTINE WAMARIYA is a storyteller and human rights advocate. Born in Kigali, Rwanda, displaced by conflict, Clemantine migrated throughout seven African countries as a child. At age twelve, 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.

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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