Creating The Girl Who Smiled Beads

Bustle describes The Girl Who Smiled Beads as an “eloquent and engaging memoir [in which] Clemantine Wamariya recalls a childhood spent as a refugee on the run from war, violence, and terror, and a womanhood shaped by those experiences. Affecting and utterly eye-opening, The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a powerful reminder of just how strong and indomitable the human spirit can be.”

In order to bring Clemantine’s memoir to life, award-winning narrator Robin Miles and director Kevin Thomsen were two key members of the team that had to work together on the audiobook. They were able to share with us what that experience was like.

What is it like bringing someone else’s personal story to life? What impact has this story had on you?
Robin Miles: Narrating someone’s personal story is tremendously rewarding, and it is such an honor to create the experience listeners will have with the story (separate from readers). It always makes me approach that person’s journey that much more carefully and respectfully. I take my cues for the tone, the emotional content, and how to speak the words right from the author herself, following shifts in urgency or emotional distance as they present themselves. I don’t want it to be about me performing their story, but about their story being allowed to speak for itself. I was very reserved when I started out, not wanting to overdramatize the story. But the great thing was having Kevin there to direct me; he was the outside eye guiding the process and the content, encouraging me to allow more of the emotional journey to be expressed.

Narrator Robin Miles

Narrator Robin Miles

Clemantine’s story drew me in effortlessly, I think because of how gently and openly she invites you along with her. Then I was surprised and delighted to discover that we had a few experiences in common, too (namely college at Yale, and the Hotchkiss School). I had an immediate sense of situation and place with her time at Yale and was able to easily access those experiences, knowing the environment firsthand. And I know the Hotchkiss campus and experience because my son is in school there right now (he has Clemantine’s former art teacher—how is that for coincidence!).

Kevin Thomsen: I never get tired of helping to bring other people’s stories to life. For the past twenty-five years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a startling collection of authors and narrators, telling stories both epic and sublimely nuanced. The goal is telling the story as truthfully as possible. With an author reading their own memoir, the trick is helping them to get back in the same spirit and frame of mind as when they originally told the story, to find that spark that made them want to tell their story in the first place. With a narrator reading someone else’s story, the trick is finding the author’s voice, both literally (to sound something like the author) and metaphorically (to find the author’s voice, matching tone and sensibility). With The Girl Who Smiled Beads, the challenge for me and Robin Miles was to bring to life all the drama of Clemantine’s story, while at the same time staying true to her graceful and nondramatic nature. Robin and I spent three long weekends recording the audiobook.

Reading the story had a big impact on me. My youngest daughter, Sefan, was adopted from Ethiopia seven years ago. While Sefan’s early life in Addis Ababa was certainly less traumatic than Clemantine’s, I still couldn’t help but picture my daughter in the same circumstances. And just by chance, my nonprofit, Red Trunk Project, is planning a trip to Rwanda in the fall to gather material for its second Red Trunk. I can say without question that The Girl Who Smiled Beads will be with me for the rest of my life, and will certainly be with me every moment I’m in Rwanda.

What was it like to meet each other (even if meeting meant Skype, phone calls, or emails)?
Robin Miles: We had a group meeting on Skype, and I’m so glad we did. I got a strong instinctive feeling that we had a good fit very quickly as we talked. She was so warm and funny and had real input about the approach to the audio, input I truly appreciate. I love narrating books, fiction and nonfiction, but meeting your author makes you want to put yourself in service to them.

Kevin Thomsen: It’s always a pleasure to meet an author before a recording. Clemantine was full of warmth and support, giving us wonderful advice and a hearty bon voyage as we set off on our journey. Her journey.

What do you want listeners to take away from The Girl Who Smiled Beads?
Robin Miles: In two words, respect and empathy. I would want listeners to begin to understand how difficult it is just to live day to day when forced to flee, to live as a refugee, and that it is an assault on one’s dignity and respect, through no fault of their own. Also, I wish for listeners to come away humanized—that is, with an increased ability to feel empathy for their fellow man, to extend themselves to the point of really caring for the plight of others, enough to be moved to get involved.

Kevin Thomsen: I want listeners to remember those moments when Clemantine found moments of truth and clarity, as she was in the middle of her journey, and then looking back on it. Many people undergoing the same crushing circumstances don’t come through the other side. They are traumatized and overwhelmed. But Clemantine managed not just to triumph but to take that triumph and find a way to share what she learned with the rest of us. Which is a testament to her strength of character. She, and this book, are a huge gift to the rest of us.