favorite passages from the girl who smiled beads.

clemantine wamariya’s the girl who smiled beads has been one of my favorite reads of the year so far, and below are some of my favorite passages from my read-through.

every human life is equally valuable. each person’s story is vital. this is just one [a note from the authors]

it’s strange, how you go from being a person who is away from home to a person with no home at all. the place that is supposed to want you has pushed you out. no other place takes you in. you are unwanted, by everyone. you are a refugee [29]

my katundu is my ballast, exogenous memory, my solace, my hope. some part of me believes that if i can just find the right arrangement of the pieces — if i can string all the beads in the right order, situate them in the right light — i can create a narrative of my life that looks beautiful to me and makes sense [34]

there’s no label to peel and stick that absolves you, shows you’ve done your duty, you’ve completed the moral project of remembering. this — rwanda, my life — is a different, specific, personal tragedy, just as each of those horors was a different, specific, personal tragedy, and inside all those tidily labeled boxes are 6 million, or 1.7 million, or 100,000, or 100 billion lives destroyed. -you cannot line up the atrocities like a matching set. –you cannot bear witness with a single word [95]

‘forget? there’s no forget. the damage is done. it will come back. those lines were crossed and we can’t go back. husbands killed their wives, wives killed their husbands. people told us, “those other people over there, we do not want them. they are cockroaches,” and we believed them. in their minds, that was okay. we have to say, “i am responsible. we are responsible. they are responsible. this happened.” right now, when we are sleeping, we see it in our dreams. we make a painting and we think it’s beautiful and the monster is right there’ [139-40]

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. -i’ve flown on private planes, i’ve lounged on private beaches. i’ve fallen asleep at night with no shelter, no parents, no country, no food. i’ve been made to feel worthless and disposable by the world. -i’ve seen enough to know that you can be a human with a mountain of resources and you can be a human with nothing, and you can be a monster either way. everywhere, and especially at both extremes, you can find monsters. it’s at the extremes that people are most scared — scared of deprivation, on one end; and scared of their privilege, on the other. with privilege comes a nearly unavoidable egoism and so much shame, and often the coping mechanism is to give. this is great and necessary, but giving, as a framework, creates problems. you give, i take; you take, i give — both scenarios establish hierarchy. both instill entitlement. –the only road to equality — a sense of common humanity; peace — is sharing, my mother’s orange. when we share, you are not using your privilege to get me to line up behind you. when we share, you are not insisting on being my savior. claire and i always looked for the sharers, the people who just said, ‘i have sugar, i have water. let’s share water. let’s not make charity about it’ [177-8]

‘i know it is a privilege to have the safety, time, comfort, and education to try to shape my experience into something coherent, to think critically and creatively about my life. there’s a difference between story and experience. experiences is the whole mess, all that actually happened; a story is the pieces you string together, what you make of it, a guide to your own existence. experience is the scars on my legs. my story is that they’re proof that i’m alive. your story, the meaning you choose to take when you listen to me, might be different. your story might be that my scars are my fault and i should feel the shame’ [240]

it was like that with claire too. i owe her my life. every time i need to summon my toughest, most self-actualized persona, i channel her. she has such control, an unwavering sense of her right to exist, a bedrock belief that her story, no matter how dark, matters just as much as anyone else’s, and she instilled that value in me. i wish claire could appreciate her own uncanny ability to navigate a world that is constantly trying to push her down. but words have limits. i have none that adequately capture our knotted relationship. my most generous feelings are clouded by my own need to be recognized [260]

claire’s children knew enough to let claire be, to let her live by her own inscrutable set of rules. that’s all a person can do, really: let others live their lives on their terms, and interrogate how you live your own. insist on knowing the backstory to your gifts and your pain. ask yourself how you came to have all the things you carry: your privilege, your philosophy, your nightmares, your faith, your sense of order and peace in the world [261]



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