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READERS GUIDE

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The title of the book is taken from a story Clemantine’s nanny, Mukamana, tells her as a child. How is the story connected to the themes of the book?

2. After fleeing Rwanda, Clemantine fears losing her sense of self in refugee camps. In what ways does her longing to preserve her individuality express itself?

3. In the first chapter of the book, Clemantine tells us: “I have never been Claire. I have never been inviolable.” As the story unfolds, she and her sister react to trauma in very different ways, and rely on different survival strategies. How would you characterize their differences? Which events best illustrate those differences?

4. Clemantine’s experience as a “stateless” person is harrowing, yet there are times when she and her sister experience great kindness and generosity. Describe some of the kindnesses that stood out to you.

5. Why do Clemantine’s sister and mother instruct her not to accept gifts? And why does Clemantine come to see acts of charity as a negative thing? Do you agree with her view of charity?

6. Clemantine sets forth an alternative to charity, an ethic of sharing. What are the origins of this practice in her life?

7. The authors write: “In Rwanda, if you’re female, you are born with great value—not because of who you are as an individual or your mind, but because of your body.” What do they mean by that? How has that mind-set affected Clemantine’s life, both during the time she was seeking refuge and in the United States? Do you see any parallels to this attitude about the female body in your own culture?

8. After she arrives in the United States, there are times when Clemantine feels alienated by American culture. What is most surprising to her about American culture? What are some of the things that make her uncomfortable or anger her?

9. Clemantine takes issue with the word genocide, which she describes as “clinical, overly general, bloodless, and dehumanizing.” In her view, that one word cannot adequately capture the atrocities of racialization and war in Rwanda. Do you agree that words and abstract concepts can distort or overwrite people’s experience? Are there words about which you feel similarly?

10. Clemantine sometimes speaks at events about being a survivor of genocide. In some ways she finds it rewarding but more often she finds it unsatisfying. What is it that she finds objectionable and why?

11. Clemantine writes about how important her katundu, or stuff, is to her. What do you think the objects she collects represent to her? What cherished objects have you saved, and what do they mean to you?

12. Clemantine talks about how meaningful the works of Eli Wiesel, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Walter Benjamin, and W. G. Sebald have been for her. In what ways did these writers equip her to grapple with her past, her pain, and her feelings of loneliness and isolation? In what ways did they expand her worldview? Who are the writers whose work has been most valuable to you in making sense of difficult events of your own past?

13. Clemantine goes on a trip to Kenya with fellow students when she is at Yale, but she ends up returning early. What does she find difficult about the trip?

14. Clemantine describes returning to Rwanda for Remembrance Day, where the government has an official historical narrative, seen in the Kigali Genocide Memorial and President Kagame’s speech. Describe the Rwandan government’s version of the country’s history. In what ways does this narrative give Rwandan people “a way to tolerate an intolerable truth”?

15. Claire tells Clemantine: “Everything is yours, everything is not yours. The world owes you nothing; nobody deserves more or less than the next person.” What does she mean by that? If those values were universally practiced, how might our society and the global community look different?

16. Why do Clemantine and Claire feel so differently about the adage “Forgive and forget”? Do you believe in forgiving and forgetting wrongs that have been done to you?

17. At age twenty-eight, Clemantine invites her mother on a trip to Europe. What does she hope to achieve with the trip? In what ways is she disappointed?

18. Why do you think the authors chose to structure the book so that it oscillates between Clemantine’s time in Africa and her life after emigrating to the United States, rather than as a linear story?  

 
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