Today I get to host the new (translation of the) book The Many Lives of Miss K: Toto Koopman – Model, Muse, Spy by Jean-Noel Liaut. Funny enough, I was offered the chance to do this (thanks, by the way!) because of my interest in fashion, but I was far more eager to read because Toto Koopman was a biracial model, muse, spy. Winning!
Anyway, this biography takes a look at all aspects of her life, but the common thread is that as a mixed person (Chinese-Indonesian and Dutch) who was well off, Koopman spent her entire life bridging cultures, traveling, and living everywhere. Boarding school in one place, finishing school in another. Modeling in Paris. Traveling to Italy and Germany. Sleeping with Russians and Americans. Speaking all the languages. You know, all the stuff that I would love to do, except maybe be in Italy or Germany during the 30s and 40s. Not the best time for them, then. But anyway.
As I was reading, I of course was in my old mode of “Oooh, Paris! Exotic and wonderful and all the things I want!” and “what a fabulous lifestyle!” and “I want that life instead of my own,” which is truly what I thought but also problematic because exoticism, and because being really into 20s-30s Paris is so cliché, and also because.
But then it struck me that I really find this interesting because Koopman is not the only person who did such a thing. Her contemporary, Josephine Baker, also found that it was much easier to exist while brown if she did so in Paris. And a generation or so later, Philippa Duke Schuyler, my favorite biracial real person (for reasons including that she’s a character in the novel I’m working on, that she played the piano, and that by my own research, she was just the perfect combination of genius, smartass, and queen of snark), decided it was better to fake a European passport than be a racial oddity. Europe did race differently, apparently. And though Schuyler and Koopman were different types of mixes and originally from different countries, I do suspect there was something Europe that alleviated certain drama by making them a combination of exotic and dull, allowing them to play up either one as needed. The perks of being a bit of everything. You can slip by unnoticed or you can be an object, which makes for a great spy and a great creative person, if not necessarily a great life as a human being.
Reading this reminded me of my own experiences traveling abroad, where I’ve found people never exoticize me the way they do at home. More than once when talking to someone new in another country, I’ve almost found myself offended when the person clearly does not find me or my appearance fascinating in any way, and then I realize that I’ve just been trained to think that I’m an object. And in pretty much every other country (at least the ones I’ve been to – I would guess if I went somewhere in Asia, this would not be true, and possibly if I went to a place in the land of blonds and snow), I look like I’m just a person who lives there. Or I look like a person from some other place that’s not interesting. That has its perks if I’m somewhere where being perceived as an American could be dangerous, and it’s refreshing not to be interrogated, but it’s also strange to get used to once you get used to the opposite.
Koopman had this all down, I think. She used her biracialness, biculturalness, and multilingualism to do whatever she found interesting or compelling; she used it to make a living; she used it to travel; she used it, it would seem, to avoid real connections with people (the story goes that she liked to embellish aspects of her life). That’s kind of awesome.
This is a person I want to learn more about. The book whet my appetite but often reads a bit more like summary and timeline than a fully drawn non-fiction narrative. But, like my other biracial heroine, Schuyler, it’s basically the only thing available readily, so until I can dig around some other archives (and, I suppose, learn a few more languages) like I did for Schuyler, it will have to do. Because of Koopman’s multivaried life, this book should appeal to a lot of readers with varied interests, from plain old biography lovers to those in my same research area of biracial peeps doing bicultural things to those interested in Paris life leading up to and during WWII. Also, there are pictures.
But, like a wise man said, you don’t have to take my word for it. You can win a copy. Just enter by September 16.