The Girl Who Smiled Beads: What I Learned

Last week, I met a new friend for coffee at Foyle’s books on Charing Cross Road. It was a Friday; I had finished a pile of marking, and I was feeling open to London. I got off at Leicester Square, and walked passed the new high tech glass offices, looking at the surviving second hand bookstores, thinking about 84 Charing Cross Lane, and Virginia Woolf’s “Street Hauntings” where her search for a pencil takes her to a shop that could still be there.

My new friend is a writer and supporter of writing; we talked about books we loved, our sisters, our mixed backgrounds (between them, our children have links to four continents, half a dozen countries, and four major world religions). I drank three cups of green tea, and then realised I was late for my next meeting. I could have spent the whole day in that beautiful, reconfigured book store, which I remembered from years before as a dusty and inhospitable maze. On the way out the door, though, I stopped my rush to pick up a book from a pile hardbacks that caught my eye.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil has an elegant cover in its UK edition — the long title, crossed by silvery lines dotted with coloured spheres — evoking beads, but also barbed wire, and the solar system. I picked up the book and glanced at the first pages, and realised I had heard this story before — in a magazine or a podcast.

Two sisters from Rwanda who are living in America as settled refugees, get an invitation to the Oprah Winfrey show. The narrator, Clemantine, is eighteen and she has written a prize-winning essay on Elie Weisel’s Night. She wrote with authority, as she and her older sister had been separated from their parents when she was six, and had spent years trying to survive the spreading war before finding their way to America. In the course of the show, Oprah asks her if she had ever been able to reconnect with her family, and when she says no, invites her up on stage to give her a letter — and then, before she opens it, reveals that in fact, her entire family has been found and flown out to Chicago to be reunited in the studio.

In a Hollywood movie, this would be the end of the story, but as is clear from the opening pages, it is only the beginning. I started reading it before I got on the train home. By Monday, I had finished it.

The book is a deeply insightful, gripping story told in one remarkable and compelling voice. The book is constructed in a tight weave of time, going back and forth between the narrator’s life in America, trying to cope with the legacy of her childhood as she makes her way through high school and onto Yale and young adulthood, and her life before — before the war, and in the years after when she and her older sister scrambled through killing fields, refugee camps, temporary homes and homelessness. Always, she follows Clare, who true to her name, never lets circumstance dim her light, refusing to be less than the person she knows herself to be, no matter what happens. Clare’s determination, resourcefulness and will are the heart of this story, but also how years spent learning only to survive can leave someone hollow — wondering what is left after everything has been taken away.

What propels this book is a sense of urgent discovery — a need to understand — not only what happened, but how to make meaning in a world where such things can happen and do happen all the time. The story is not just about trauma, but about how we live with trauma — and in this way, it is a story for all of us.

Towards the end of the book, the narrator reflects on how difficult it has been to reconnect with her mother, who has ended up living in America.

“All the things that we do not say create not just space but a force field between, a constant, energetic pressure. Two people in pain are magnets, repelling each other. We cannot or will not reach across the space to connect.”

What is true for her and her mother is true, too, for the world. We all live with a history of pain, deep legacies that we do not or dare not excavate. In America, we live with violence and we refuse to see violence. In the UK, we live with hundreds of years of repression, civil war, colonialism and slavery, but we rarely tell that story. When my children studied English history, they focused on Victorian inventors and the Second World War; both foundation myths that miss out a lot of backstory.

Why is that important? Why shouldn’t we just move on — like some local residents in Montgomery Alabama say we should do when objecting to the new Legacy Museum that traces the history of racial terrorism in America?

Only by recognising our past can we begin to work actively against it — and only active acknowledgement and engagement towards change can act as prevention.

Wamariya’s experience convinces her only a radical equality can work to reframe the world — radical equality that is based on a belief in the worth of every single person’s life.

As a child, she lived in a house with a garden, a garden that was full of orange trees. After dinner, her mother would ask her children to get an orange and divide it — between them and however many guests there were. It was an exercise in sharing — there were more than enough oranges to go around. Sharing becomes the moral vision at the heart of the book, sharing that goes beyond the material.

Wamariya writes:

Survival, true survival of the body and soul, requires creativity, freedom of thought, collaboration. You might have time and I might have land. You might have ideas and I might have strength. You might have a tomato and I might have a knife. We need each other. We need to say: I honor 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.

Shortly after I finished this book, I was listening to Hidden Brain, a podcast my friend Diane first told me about. Diane is a podcaster, having started interviewing people with cancer after she herself was diagnosed. In my desperate search for ideas, answers, perspectives to help me think my way out of the box I feel my two societies — the UK and the US — have put themselves in since the Brexit/Trump votes, I have been listening to more podcasts, reading more on Medium and other on-line publications, looking anywhere for clues to how we can stop ourselves from going down a very dark path.

This particular episode was called Romeo and Juliet in Kigali, and it was about how a Jewish professor of psychology, who survived in Hungary during the war because his gentile nanny hid him, became involved in an experiment to change people’s thinking in Rwanda. The psychologist had devoted his life to understanding the conditions that lead us to a point where neighbour is willing to kill neighbour. He looked at trends — unacknowledged trauma, propaganda, a history of racism — and how they can be counterbalanced. The program explains how he became a consultant on a radio program that offered a counter-narrative — a soap opera about love across ethnic divides that became wildly popular.

Although the show admitted it is very difficult to change attitudes through story-telling it is possible to change behaviour, and because we are such social creatures and take our cues from others — that collective behaviour can work in our favour.

The stories we tell need to be wider, more varied, more nuanced, more true — and above all, more hopeful. Listening to them, maybe we will change how we behave and if each of us does, than soon others will, too.

Or as I found this morning on author Chris Cleave’s twitter feed — retweeting Shakespeare & Co., quoting Ursula K Le Guin: “You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

While the official story remains stubborn and unyielding, the unofficial story — via a friend, via a bookstore, via a book, via all the things we throw out and pick up in the ether — is wider, more full of possibilities, more like Clare, and like Clemantine, it is that stubborn light we all need to follow now.

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Writer, teacher, immigrant. Angeleno in London. Connecting through the world of words one reader at a time.

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Catherine T Davidson

Catherine T Davidson

Writer, teacher, immigrant. Angeleno in London. Connecting through the world of words one reader at a time.

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