Wednesday Books: Lives fashioned in exile

DESERT FLOWER BY WARIS DIRIE, VIRAGO, pounds 10.99 SIBERIAN DREAM BY IRINA PANTAEVA, BANTAM, pounds 6.99

A PAIR of really long legs can be a great advantage in life. It is strange to think how different these two models' memoirs would have been if Irina Pantaeva and Waris Dirie had been born of average height.

Both little less than 6ft, they sprang up tall and skinny in Siberia and Somalia respectively, where food and water were always short and where, they each discovered, it was a tremendous asset to be able to run fast - Irina from Soviet Communism and Wasir from marriage to a 60-year- old (in exchange for five camels).

As nomads, both girls spend a lot of their books on the move. Pantaeva may have had a happy home life in the small city of Ulan Ude, but in Siberian Dream she is never far from a bus stop, train station, airport or boat. Dirie spends the best part of her first six chapters running away from home across the desert, which involves having a close encounter with a lion and then the assault of a truck driver. Fittingly, the same legs which enable their escapes also qualify them for entry into the fashion world, where they will tread the smoother surfaces of international catwalks. For both, going a long way is literally measured by how far they get from their home towns. That they will defy the odds and "make it" is never doubted.

"I was always looking for a way to make things better, push myself forward and find whatever that mysterious opportunity was that I knew was waiting for me," writes Dirie. While she believes that "survival is determined only by the strength of one's will", for Pantaeva "reality would be crafted by the tenacious and the creative". It is an interesting difference, for if Pantaeva's determination makes her lyrical, Dirie's makes her tough- talking.

What both share, however, is a strange, shifting language that melds their new environments with those of their origins, and which confuses moments of biographical revelation with the more impersonal lexicon of their industry. Neither Siberian Dream nor Desert Flower, for instance, would be out of place as a headline on a fashion shoot in a glossy magazine.

Strangely, the commercial language of fashion is not seen by either model as an intrusion on her personal voice, but as a validation of how far she has come, and a means of genuine identification. "I did make-up ads for Revlon, then later represented their new perfume, Agee," remembers Dirie. "The commercial announced, 'From the heart of Africa comes a fragrance to capture the heart of every woman'." Dirie approves this use of "my exotic African look", though it is surely not exotic to her.

At her first Chanel casting, Pantaeva happily recalls hearing: "This is an incredible girl. Look at her face! Where has she been? Where did she come from?" It is a key moment for Irina. "I wished I could hold [it] in time and live it again and again," she says.

But what she perceives as an interest in her life is really the stylist's means of summing up the collection's "story" or message, for which Irina will become a vehicle. She mistakes the kind of admiration she receives. Fashion's constant search for the new intersects with an individual story, which then finds in fashion a meaning no less valid for being expressed through the formulae of an industry not best known for its sincerity.

Fashion represents an opportunity for role play; for being the centre of attention in a way neither woman's cultures had ever permitted. But whereas Pantaeva's childhood of dressing up and sewing through the night to make clothes for the next day finds its just fulfilment in her life as a model, Dirie's biography does not. Nor does it when she resolves her passport problem; nor does it when she marries Nigel in order to stay in England; nor does it when she finally marries a man she loves.

Dirie's real interest lies elsewhere. She is most coherent when speaking against female circumcision, which she herself suffered aged five and which she now campaigns against with the UN. As she runs through these various strands without weaving them together, her memoir lacks the direction of Pantaeva's. At times, reading Desert Flower feels like looking at a photo album of somebody else's holiday snaps.

At the close of their memoirs, Irina and Waris are both married, both living in America; but where do they go from here? Both have collected and recollected their experiences in memoirs like various pieces of baggage, but neither seems sure where to take them next, if anywhere. One thing only is sure: you have to admire them.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links