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||Mia Couto (b. 1955)|
Mosambiquean novelist, short-story
writer, journalist, poet, and environmental activist, whose novel Terra sonâmbula
(1992, traanslated as Sleepwalking Land), about the Mozambican Civil War, has been
hailed as one of the 12 best works
of 20th-century African novel. Mia Couto won in 2014 the Neustadt
International Prize for Literature, a honor that has often preceded the
Nobel Prize in Literature. His books have been translated into some
"War had killed the road thereabouts. Hyenas slunk along the tracks, snuffling among ashes and dust. The landscape had blended sadnesses the likes of which had never been seen before, in colours that clung to the inside of the mouth. They were dirty colours, so dirty that they had lost all their freshness, no longer daring to rise into the blue on the wing. Here the sky had become unimaginable. And creatures had got used to the ground, in resigned apprenticeship of death." (from Sleepwalking Land, 1992; translated by David Brookshaw)
António Emilio Leite Couto was born in Beira, the son of Fernando and Maria de Jesus Couto. Couto's parents had come to Mosambique from northern Portugal. His father had opposed the fascist dictator Antônio Salazar's "Estado Novo" (New State) and was forced to flee into exile. In his new home country, he worked as a railroad administrator, but then established himself as a poet and journalist.
While still quite young, Couto adopted the nickname
Mia, due to his love of cats. (One day he proclaimed that his name was
no longer Antonio but Mia.) Trying to get him to sleep, his parents
told him stories of their life in Portugal. "... more than anything, I
remember the passion they found in the invention of those stories," he
later recalled. "In that very familiar and domestic moment, the very
instance of literature was present." ('Re-enchanting the World: The 2014 Neustadt Prize Lecture' by Mia Couto, World Literature Today, Volume 89, Number 1, January-February 2015)
His first poems Couto published in Notícias da Beira,
a local paper edited by his father. In 1971, Couto entered the Lourenço
Marques University (now
known as Eduardo Mondlane University), to study medicine. Like
many other students of the time, he got involved in the field of
politics. He abandoned his studies in 1974 to join the Liberation Front
Mosambique (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, or Frelimo), a Marxist
movement, that had waged a guerrilla war from 1964 against
However, instead of being given an AK-47, Couto was
instructed to infiltrate the Portuguese-controlled media. In 1975,
Mosambique became an independent nation and
Frelimo declared a one-party communist state. During the subsequent
civil war an estimated 900,000 people died and more than five million
civilians werfe displaced.
was appointed in 1977 the head of the Mosambique Information Agency. He
held the post for three years and then worked as general editor of the
magazine Tempo and later edited the daily newspaper Noticias de Maputo and the weekly Domingo.
After returning to the Eduardo Mondlane University, Couto
received a degree in biology in 1989. This began his career as a
lecturer, researcher in ecology, and the head of the environmental
organization Impacto. He also wrote for a Maputo theatre group,
Mutumbela Gogo. As a columnist, Couto has been a highly visible figure
in his country, where literacy rate (adult total was reported at about 60 % in 2017. He is noted for his mastery of the crónica,
a form which combines elements from the opinion column, the short
story, and the personal anecdote.
Couto's debut collection of poetry, Raiz de orvalho (1983, Root of Dew), earned him his first award. The book was published in Maputo; it did not appear in Portugal until 1999 when Couto had already established his reputation as a major literary voice. Vozes anoitecidas (1986, translated as Voices Made Night), a collection of short stories, was awarded the Grande Prémio da Ficção Narrativa de Moçambique. O último vôo do flamingo (2000, translated as The Last Flight of the Flamingo), set around a Mozambicisan town recovering from the civil war, won him the Mário António Prize from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, Portugal. The story moves on two levels, on the mystical level, the U.N. peacekeepers explode inexplicably, and on the concrete worldy level, they step on landmines. Couto has told that idea for the novel came after he found a single flamingo feather on a beach, and asked himself, "what if those birds never returned again?"
In his fiction Couto has particularly dealt with issues related to national identity, independence and nation-building. His innovative style, peppered with neologisms and grammatical acrobatics, has led to him being compared with James Joyce and José Luandino Vieira. Drawing from the oral tradition, Couto's hallucinatory Mosanbiquen landscape is a world populated by the living and the dead. A varanda do Frangipani (1996, translated as Under the Frangipani) is narrated beyond the grave – a carpenter buried under a frangipani tree turns into a xipoco, a wandering spirit, and inhibits the body of a policeman. In Sleepwalking Land the narrator inteprets the language of the dead. At the end the entire country vanishes, or, as it could be interpreted, Mosambique becomes integrated into global capitalism. The trilogy As areias do imperador (2015-2018, Sands of the Emperor), starting from Mulheres de Cinza (Woman of the Ashes) was about the end of the so-called State of Gaza, established by the renegade Zulu general Soshangane in the 1830s. Its last king, Ngungunyane (nicknamed the lion of Gaza) was defeated by the Portuguese in 1895. The other parts of the trilogy are Espada e azagaia (2016, The Sword and the Spear) and O bebedor de horizontes (2018, The Drinker of Horizons), which ends the love story of Imami and Germano de Melo. Couto was awarded the 2020 Jan Michalski Prize for literature for the trilogy.
Although Couto's techniques have been associated with magic realism, he has said in an interview that "For an African writer it would be very difficult to think of realism and magic as two pillars of the same concept, because the way we feel and think results from the permanent crossing of those frontiers." (The Paris Review, May 2, 2013) Couto has been often regarded as the voice of the nation to the world outside. At the same time he is a white writer, with a deeply rooted cultural dualism – the colonial European and the national African. He writes in Portuguese, the official language of Mozambique, but it is spoken by only half of the population as a first or a second language. When asked about his views on the concept of World Literature, Couto said: "As far as I am concerned, it's a step sideways rather than a step forward. . . . This apparently new category is a way of classifying the literature of the so-called 'other'." (The Worlds of Mia Couto, edited by Kristian van Haesendonck, 2020)
Couto does not object to hunting, if it's controlled by rules.
"It suggests that we can read signs in the landscape, listen to
different types of silence, master languages and share codes." (from Pensativities:
Selected Essays, 2015) In Confession of the Lioness
(2012) women are the prey to a ghost-like lioness. The novel was
inspired by real events in northern Mosambique, where 25 women were
devoured by a group of lions in 2008. "I'm a hunter. I don't kill.
Isn't that the same thing, surely? For you, it may be. For me, it's
completely different." (from Confession of the Lioness) Couto lives in Maputo. His wife, Patricia, is a haematologist, and their daughter an actor.
Note: This page is under work!
(Some sources give Couto's day of birth as July 7; in Authors' Calendar: July 5)
For further reading: A Postmodern Nationalist: Truth, Orality, and Gender in the Work of Mia Couto by Phillip Rothwell (2004); Encyclopedia of African Literature, ed. by Simon Gikandi (2003); 'Couto, Mia' by S.Y. [Selma Yampolsky], World Authors 2000-2005, ed. by Jennifer Curry, et al. (2007); 'Representations of African Childhood in Conflict and Post-Conflict Contexts: Johnny Mad Dog, Ezra, and Sleeping Land' by Christine Singer and Lindiwe Dovey, in Lost and Othered Children in Contemporary Cinema, ed. by Debbie Olson and Andrew Schall (2012); Transmesis: Inside Translation’s Black Box by Thomas O. Beebee (2012); A Companion to Mia Couto, edited by Grant Hamilton & David Huddart (2016); The Worlds of Mia Couto, edited by Kristian van Haesendonck (2020); The Mozambican Modern Ghost Story (1866-2006): The Genealogy of a Genre by Peter J. Maurits (2022)