When I taught my post colonial literature course, we sought out indigenous writers from what had been originally, referred to as “ third world countries.” When I took over the course, I immediately banished that epithet, attempting to remove the moniker of competitive ranking of worlds, peoples, countries and situations. The voices we offered our students in that gifted class such as China Achebe, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example, were unique and played no second fiddle to lauded Americans or others who wrote about the trajectories of their own countries. Still, places like South America, the Caribbean and Africa brought with them their own special and recurring issues: civil wars, clan warfare, colonization and terrors.
From the Caribbean- born but UK educated V.S. Naipaul, I changed one book to Canadian Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey, the story of a Parsi family whose problems resembled most families worldwide: daughter falling ill; a son who wants to go his own way in opposition to his parents’ wishes, hard working parents, etc. The tone and narrative were accessible to Canadian youth and the novel imparted a way of life few of my middle class students had even imagined.
When I shared my interest in The Girl Who Smiled Beads, a friend disagreed and called out the protagonist, particularly for her attitude. The true life recount concerns the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the writer’s, Clemantine Wamariya , long journey as a homeless refugee. At age 6, she and her older sister, Claire, fled their grandmother’s home near the Burundi border, travelled through seven African countries to avoid killers, from refugee camps to slums to satellite settlements and eventually on to middle class white America, where she found herself to be “a curiosity, an emissary from suffering’s far edge.” Clinging to Claire, Clemantine appears to prosper, adapt and thrive in her new country, even showcased in a showstopping reunion in 2006 with her parents, once believed massacred, on Oprah Winfrey’s television show.
The book documents the difficulties of a perilous existence with fluctuating means of surviving extreme situations , but somehow she and Claire maintain their dignity and emerge from life threatening situations. Sister Claire appears the tougher, more resilient, who keeps her head down and participates in the world of hard knocks. She marries, gets beaten, has babies, negotiates small businesses, and keeps on, no time for tenderness. To support Claire, Clementine, the author is the bulwark, forced to grow up too quickly, becoming an ersatz mother to her niece, Mariette, before she herself enters puberty. Her backpack in which she keeps a few moments, provides a kind of lifeline to herself as a person with needs. It’s her one talisman.
The story is not told in a voice of gratefulness or triumph.Rather, it is one of resentment, particularly as Clemantine observes herself in the States, Illinois, in a home of welcoming and supportive foster parents: as resentful. She does well in school, plays basketball, is even a cheerleader. She believes her classmates view her as exotic and when she does reveal the horrors of her life, she is rebuffed, told by teachers not to be so sharp, so outspoken, so intense.
My friend with whom I shared the book expressed that the girl should have felt lucky : to have landed securely in a new life, given advantages such as a special prep school so she could qualify for Yale, a loving family who sought her emotional repair. She’s even wins scholarships and is recognized as an activist, intelligentsia of a sort. Yes and no.
We want to hear the gratitude that goes along with opportunities, especially those never possible from previous lives. We expect those who pull themselves up by their boot straps to at least thank those providing the boots. In stead, here, there is acknowledgment of a different way of life, but the dominant pervading emotion is a grudging acknowledgement , a focus of remaining “ the other” in spite of acceptance into a cleaner, safer, healthier, more stable, better world of advantage.
In many ways, ,Clemantine ‘s portrayal is cerebral, not that all of the gritty, messy, life threatening details are glossed over, witnessed or endured by the writer and reader. We learn that even constant foot washing will not eliminate the bugs and insects that have burrowed deep between toes that ever cease to itch, that nits are a pervasive never ending issue; that in a refugee camp, “others were invested in your suffering…their jobs and self-worth depended on your continued abasement, on your commitment to residing in a social stratum below them, the same old neocolonial scheme.” It’s an existence of fighting off disease, fighting for shelter, fighting for a place to exist, and always being on the look out for those who would use and abuse you.
Remembering as an adult, what she had observed as a child may ,perhaps, be understood as a stratification of survival and selfishness. Clemantine sees and relives her lost childhood from the consciousness of an intelligent educated woman, trying to make sense of a world that is incomprehensible to the child she once was, the descent from a world of nannies and brilliant flowers to malaria, dysentery, paper tents, scrounging for food, and an acquiescence of bare existence.
Constantly, she returns to Eli Wiesel’s hellish description in Night when he tells of his forced march from his holocaust concentration camp, ashamed to reveal the burden of his labouring father, and his desire for food: not the image of the suffering son whose only goal is to keep his father alive. He writes, and she echoes,“I was fascinated by Wiesel’s determination to view himself without pity, shame or sentimentality, to spell out the horrors he lived through and place himself in the fallen world.” Wiesel gives her language, words that communicate her response to being a child in the worst of situations. She says in conversation , “My name is Clemantine… I don’t want to be called the genocide survivor anymore. No. It’s a label. I am human.”
She reads vivaciously; Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald encourages her to go deeply into her memories.Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye also aids her to make sense of the dualities in life. Morrison’s tale is told with bitterness and regret from the purview of a once child as well.
In her essay, Objects of Memory, that drew Oprah’s attention, Clementine wrote in conclusion,”
It should be better by now. It looks better by now. But if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that surfaces often deceive. I can play the part; I can wear the bracelets I make, drink tea with friends, lounge in the sun on the pretty grass in the park. But I am still stringing the beads together, still working on creating a life out of lost memories and scrambled time. I know, now, that to feel complete I need joy and peace. Those are the pieces that will make me feel whole.
When we see the images of children in refuge camps, at the Mexican walls, the long marches from Guatemala or El Salvador or even look into the wrinkled faces of holocaust survivors, we should hope their lives were or will be balanced with love, security and joy. The human condition endures, but at what cost?
Sharing my friend’s thoughts with my husband, we wonder if our reactions are in deed bound up with our own countries’ philosophy , especially towards immigrants and refugees. My friend lives in the States, communicating the message of how lucky to live here, stop your moaning, look at the opportunities you’ve been given: from nothing , you now have something! And in Clemantine’s life, it is something very special.
But, we as Canadians perhaps tend to see a larger picture, less jingoistic, more understanding of a life before life, willing to share our freedoms, but mindful of a past, a background that is not so easily erased: what we used to refer to as “the mosaic,” not the melting pot mentality.
Yet, truly, there is a need, even a responsibility to oneself, not to stay mired in the past, to move on and be able to claim the joys that do in deed make one feel whole.
Even Clemantine wrote that.