NOT TO BE MISSED
"Dans ma chair", an autobiography by KATOUCHA
Paris: Lafon, 2007. (334p.).
In collaboration with Sylvia Deutsch
Ce compte rendu en français
Autobiographies provide entertaining information about individuals' life and preoccupations: that's the law of the genre. But as often, self-representations broach broader and challenging topics that go beyond the idiosyncrasy of the narrator's concerns. Dans ma chair by supermodel Katoucha is a case in point. Not only does this book tell of the author's traumatic childhood, wild teenage years and rise to the top of the world of fashion, but it also evokes innumerable issues, such as Guinea's troubled past under Sékou Touré, female circumcision, parenting, love, money, alienation, sex, drugs and rock and roll; and the list could go on.
Katoucha's childhood already conjures up a number of predicaments common to many a Guinean girl in the 1960s. She was circumcised, separated from her family, sent away to live with a remote Uncle, sexually molested, married to a young man to whom she had become pregnant when aged just 17. Two years later, she made off to Paris with another boyfriend, abandoning her young daughter to the care of her parents. A sorry tale of juvenescent misadventures, all the more intriguing since Katoucha, whose real name is Khadiatou Niane, was not born in some remote part of Africa to poor and uneducated parents. Quite the contrary: her father Djibrill Tamsir Niane was a brilliant archaeologist, historian and writer who studied in Bordeaux; (p.11) her grandfather was a doctor who became the Director of Conakry General Hospital (p.11) and her mother who belonged to the first generation of girls educated in a French school was working as a Private Secretary. That being so, Dans ma chair is not the story of girl abandoned by her family. But as one quickly finds out, even in the most affluent families, parents doing what they think is best for their children is no guarantee of a happy childhood.
Because it was a defining moment that changed the course of her whole life, Katoucha begins her autobiography with the dreadful day she was led to the circumciser. "An intellectual who studied in France, my mother was against this practice of bygone years", the narrator says. "But in Africa, "bygone years" tradition and ancestors' inheritance had to be respected, regardless of people's social status". (p.12) Therefore, in spite of my well-educated progenitors, she adds, "I was inflicted with no anaesthetic, of course this very private and irreversible mutilation in the name of ancestral custom". (p.12) The year was 1969. 
The hurt and incomprehensible reason for this gross violation of her body not only left her traumatised, but also wary of her mother's feelings towards her. To make matters worse, her father had been imprisoned for two years in the forbidding Camp Boiro and lived in fear for his life after his release from jail. Thus his decision to escape from Guinea with his family: a risky enterprise under the murderous regime of Sékou Touré. The flight had to be organised with utmost secrecy and when Katoucha was "kidnapped" by an elderly Aunt, who dragged her towards the departure door of the airport, she could not understand why her mother would smack her instead of coming to her rescue. She had not been told that she was leaving the country "for her own good" and would, hopefully, be reunited with her parents at a later stage. Nothing made sense to her. Hence she says, "I was dragged away by the old hag in a plane whose doors closed behind me like those of a safe: or a tomb. After my mutilation, this kidnapping was for me a second death". (p.25) It may well be that Katoucha's mother had little choice and suffered as much, if not more, at the rough treatment inflicted on her beloved daughter, but the rationale of the preventive measures aimed at somewhat sheltering her from even nastier, and often lethal socio-political expediency was lost on the young girl and these unsettling experiences would scar her for life, physically and psychologically.
Life in Bamako, where she disembarked after her sudden departure from Conakry, added insult to injury. She found herself in a foreign environment, abandoned to her own devices and a victim of sexual abuse. Eventually, it took four years for the whole family to escape from Conakry and to be reunited in Dakar. But by that time Katoucha was a teenager, full of anger and resentment, who only dreamt of freedom. Her relationship with her mother became increasingly strained and her attitude towards her father was at its lowest point: "As I had grown into a young woman" she says, "I could no longer bear the authority of the very one who did not protect me. I had only one desire: to go away, from my mother, my family, my country". (p.43)
So began a life of truancy dominated by family clashes and unruly behaviour. Katoucha's burgeoning interest in clothes and fashion did not ease family relationships and her parents were driven to despair when she fell pregnant when aged 17. It did not take them long to marry her off in order to save the family honour. But Katoucha was not interested in raising a child and she abandoned her daughter to the care of her husband's family. She had other plans with her friend and lover Alain, and it was simple: leaving for Paris at the first opportunity and becoming a fashion model.
Luck was on her side when she arrived in the megalopolis: she soon found an agent, managed a contract with Lanvin, began work as a model in his workshop; and not long after that, Thierry Mugler "offered her the baptism of fire on the catwalk". (p.75) The rest is history: Katoucha became one of the most popular supermodels of her generation. She criss-crossed the world and worked for the most influential photographers and fashion designers: Paco Rabanne, Yves Saint-Laurent... Life became like an endless party, vain and exciting. "I could spend a full week without sleeping in my bed" (p.96) the narrator says, and "if I felt like taking a new boyfriend, I just had to pick and choose among the numerous young playboys, rolling in money and who gravitated permanently around us, looking for a new adventure. Sumptuous bunches of flowers, gifts, champagne, yachts, private jets: nothing was too extravagant in order to seduce us". (p.84)
A few years after her flight from Dakar, Katoucha's wildest dreams had become reality. But as she soon realised, fame did not cure her childhood wounds. She was missing her family badly, her turbulent way of life was difficult to reconcile with stable and meaningful love relationships and the children she bore to successive companions all ended up in the care of their respective fathers. Real friends were few and far between and a throng of acquaintances, living at her expense were fleecing her: She seemed not to care, but her reckless attitude towards money had long-lasting effects on her life and, many times put her on the brink of insolvency. Dubious sponsors landed her in deep water and it was also organisational and financial problems that plagued her move from modelling to designer in the latter part of her life.
The last few chapters of Katoucha's autobiography tell the story of a woman who has lost pretty much everything she owned, but one who has kept and unaltered passion for the world of fashion. And as souvenirs are better remembered than money, she speaks with great warmth of the designers who employed her, of the happy bunch of models she met on the catwalk, of those who remained good friends, of the youngsters landing on her doorstep full of hope and of the pioneer Black African models such as Esther Kamatari  who took French fashion by storm and showed the world that "Black could indeed be beautiful". These last few chapters also highlight a slow reconciliation of the narrator with herself, her past, her family and her country. "As I am reaching the halfway mark in my life" she says, "I am full of projects and hope to bring them to fruition in my land of birth. Africa is looking forward... but for the time being, serenely, I cherish the pleasure to be back home, looking at the silvery sea like Ulysses after his long, eventful journey home". (p.323)
As it turned out, Katoucha only had limited time to enjoy the Senegalese shores as her life was cut short when she drowned in the river Seine in 2008 the same year her mentor Yves Saint Laurent passed away. It was the end of the road for the young Senegalese girl who had arrived in Paris almost 30 years earlier, borrowing Julius Caesar's famous words "Veni, vidi, vici !" upon receiving her first pay-packet in October 1980. But a quarter of a century later, her contribution and that of other black supermodels to French fashion was there to stay. The courageous stand of Edmonde Charles-Roux, who lost his job with Vogue France in 1966 for attempting to put a Black model on the front-cover of the famous publication, had been vindicated. (p.70) The days of fashion shows and French magazines shunning Black women were definitely over.
1. Female genital mutilation (FGM) has far from vanished today, but progress has been made over the past 40 years, thanks to the work and the tireless efforts of people like Katoucha and the other supermodel, turned human rights activist against FGM, Somali Waris Dirie, who also published her best-selling autobiography "Desert Flower, The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad" in 1998.
2. Esther Kamatari (from Burundi). "Princesse des rugo. Mon histoire". Paris: Bayard, 2001.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities