In her striking debut memoir, Waller trades bad memories of the past for a newfound clarity and strength.
The youngest of six children, Waller was born in Mongolia, not far from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Living in a ger (a traditional tent) under the iron fist of communism was challenging in the 1970s and ’80s. On good days, her impoverished family ate whatever they could get, and it was sometimes strange fare, like cow’s head. On bad days, they ate nothing. As a girl, Waller was awestruck when, on a friend’s TV, she saw a famous contortionist named Norovsambuu who twisted her body as if she were “more snake than woman.” Trying to imitate her newfound hero, she began twisting and stretching her own small body. When her older sister took her to audition at the state circus, Waller was accepted for training. She also earned the opportunity to learn the art of contortion from Norovsambuu. Performing her first show at 9-years-old, Waller eventually became the family breadwinner. An unflinching account of the dark side of life for a child performer—when she developed breasts, she was molested by a clown in her troupe—this poignant memoir is heart-rending and not easily forgotten. It’s also suspenseful: Waller’s troupe was trapped in the middle of civil war. After moving to America to work for Ringling Brothers, her broken life began to mend when she met her love. Waller writes powerfully and poetically, using a staccato rhythm, for example, to evoke the terror of being mollested: “This was a man of thinning gray hair that jutted from either side of a round head. This was a man with a face decorated with red paint on the tip of his nose and both cheeks. This was Sanaa the Clown.” Moving quickly, the fluid story can be read in an afternoon, but memorable details—her mother had a green glass eye and a brown eye—leave lasting impressions.
Waller’s gentle voice weaves an evocative tale of survival and grit.