The Girl Who Smiled Beads – Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil

Rating: 5/5

Genocide – The deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group.

“The word genocide cannot tell you, cannot make you feel, the way I felt in Rwanda.

“The word genocide cannot articulate the one-person experience – the real experience of each of the millions it purports to describe.

“The word genocide cannot explain the never-ending pain, even if you live.

“The word genocide cannot help the civilians.

“The word genocide is clinical, overly general, bloodless, and dehumanising.”

What is described as the Rwandan genocide began on April 7th 1994 and lasted for 100 days after Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi were killed when their plane was shot down over the country’s capital Kigali on April 6th. An estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed during this short period as extremist Hutus slaughtered about 70% of the minority Tutsi population, as well as thousands of Hutu moderates opposed to the killings.

The ethnic tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis can be traced back to the arrival of Belgian colonists in 1916, who issued identity cards to classify people according to their ethnicity, with the Belgians considering the Tutsis to be superior to the Hutus. Although the Belgians would eventually concede power and grant Rwanda independence in 1962, the ethnic divide would remain, with the majority Hutus taking the place of the Belgians.

“Colonisation is built on the idea that we are not the same, that we don’t possess equal humanity.”

The mass killings in Rwanda finally ended when the Tutsi-controlled Rwandan Patriotic Front led by Paul Kagame seized control of the country. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has sentenced more than 60 people for their involvement and nearly 2,000,000 people have stood before Rwandan community court. A humanitarian crisis occurred as a result of the war, with an estimated 2,000,000 displaced Rwandans becoming refugees.

“The war had no logic, no direction, no discernible objective, no face. It was everything, everywhere, all at once, and it stood for nothing at all.”

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil is Wamariya’s memoir about surviving the Rwandan genocide and describes how she and her older sister spent six years travelling through seven African countries to find safety, before being granted refugee status in the US. The book captures the horrific effects of war, as well as its traumatic aftermath. Wamariya describes the barbaric behaviour of the extremists and the appalling conditions that people were forced to endure. As starvation and desperation became a way of life, the book highlights how easy it became for children and adults to be manipulated and depraved.

“You had to try to hang on to your name, though nobody cared about your name. You had to try to stay a person. You had to try not to become invisible. If you let go and fell back into the chaos you were gone, just a number in a unit, which also was a number. If you died, no one knew. If you got lost, no one knew. If you gave up and disintegrated inside, no one knew.”

As well as being a painful account of being a refugee, Wamariya is frankly honest about her feelings towards her family, particularly her sister and mother. The book opens with Clemantine and her sister being reunited with their family on The Oprah Winfrey Show and depicts the reality when the fairy tale moment on television is over. She and her family don’t have a happy-ever-after ending and instead her family are flown back to Rwanda just days later. A slow process then begins to get their family back to the US to live as immigrants before the family try to adapt and find a way to integrate into each other’s lives again.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a terrifying and horrific account of one of the greatest war crimes against humanity. It is a book about identity, survival and hope. It is a powerful read with an important message about equality and it is one that I will never forget.

“Survival, true survival of the body and soul, requires creativity, freedom of thought, collaboration…We need each other. We need to say: I honour the things that you respect and I value the things you cherish. I am not better than you. You are not better than me. Nobody is better than anybody else. Nobody is who you think they are at first glance. We need to see beyond the projections we cast onto each other. Each of us is so much grander, more nuanced, and more extraordinary than anybody thinks, including ourselves.”

After being granted asylum in the US, Clemantine went on to receive a BA in Comparative Literature from Yale University and became the youngest ever person to serve on the United States Holocaust Museum’s Memorial Council, appointed by President Barack Obama. Now thirty, she is a member of the Board of Directors at Women for Women International and is an experienced speaker, storyteller and human rights advocate.

Native Son & Black Boy – Richard Wright

Native Son: 4/5

Black Boy: 5/5

Richard Wright’s Native Son was published on March 1st, 1940 and was the first novel by a black author to be chosen for the Book-of-the-Month Club. It sold an incredible quarter of a million copies in its first three weeks and within five months it had sold half a million copies. The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, who lives in one rat-infested room with his family on the south side of Chicago. What unfolds is a series of horrifying events after a desperate act.

“He shut their voices out of his mind. He hated his family because he knew they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held towards them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain. And toward himself he was even more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough.”

Black Boy was published in 1945 and is Richard Wright’s own account of growing up in the Deep South of America. Born near Natchez, Mississippi, in 1908, Wright lived in Memphis, Tennessee as a child before living in an orphanage and then lived with various relatives. In Black Boy, Wright details a life of moving from home to home and, by the age of twelve, he had received only one year of formal education. Hunger and poverty dominated his life, as well as white subjugation and fear. His dream of justice and opportunity in the north became his focus as he learned to survive in his hostile environment.

“But what strange world was this? I concluded the book with the terrible conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life. I had once tried to write, had once revelled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.”

I was lent these books by a work friend and it really is essential that they are read together. In hindsight, I wish I had read Black Boy first as it provides more of an insight into the character of Bigger Thomas. For me, Bigger was a character lacking empathy and demonstrated sociopathic traits. However, reading Black Boy offers an in-depth glimpse into Bigger’s psyche and Wright’s painfully honest account of his own life is quite an indictment of society in America during that period. I loved the energy and flow of Wright’s writing, which made for compelling and immersive reading.

Wright’s turbulent home life influences and shapes much of his writing and after leaving home at fifteen, he worked in Memphis for two years before moving on to Chicago. In 1935, he began to work on the Federal Writers’ Project and in 1938, he published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the following year. Other titles include The Outsider, The Long Dream and American Hunger. After the publication of Black Boy, Wright left the United States with his wife and visited France as official guests of the French government. They returned to France in 1947 and lived there with their three daughters, with Wright remaining there until his death in 1960.

I was alarmed recently to hear a comment from someone who dismissed autobiographies, implying that they are egotistical and self-indulgent. While I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion, I couldn’t disagree more. Real life accounts can teach us so much about the world, human nature and important moments in history. These books were shocking, provocative and uncomfortable to read, but they were completely gripping and absorbing. I am so glad that I received the opportunity to read these books and they are certainly two that I will never forget.

Have you read these books and did you enjoy them? What is your opinion on autobiographies? Do you think they are important or do you believe they are self-serving? I would love to know your thoughts!