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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Mia Couto (b. 1955)


Mosambiquean novelist, short-story writer, journalist, poet, and environmental activist, whose novel Terra  sonâmbula (1992, 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 twenty languages.

"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 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." 

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 of Mosambique (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, or Frelimo), a Marxist movement, that had waged a guerrilla war from 1964 against the Portuguese. 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.

Couto was appointed in 1977 the head of the Mosambique Information Agency. He 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 writes for a Maputo theatre group, Mutumbela Gogo. As a columnist, Couto has been a highly visible figure in his country. 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 first book, Raiz de orvalho (1983), was a collection of poems. His collection of short stories, Vozes anoitecidas (1986, Voices Made Night), was awarded the Grande Prémio da Ficção Narrativa de Moçambique. O último vôo do flamingo(2000, 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, rife with neologisms and grammatical acrobatics, has led to him being compared with James Joyce and José Luandino Vieira. Drawing from the oral tradition, his hallucinatory Mosanbiquen landscape is a world populated by the living and the dead. A varanda do Frangipani (1996, 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.

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. 

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); 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) 

Selected works:

  •  Raiz de Orvalho (1983; Root of Dew)
  • Vozes Anoitecidas, 1986
    - Voices Made Night (translated by David Brookshaw, 1990)
  • Cada homem é uma raça, 1990
    - Every Man Is a Race (translated by David Brookshaw, 1994)
  • Cronicando, 1991
    - Every Man Is a Race (translated by David Brookshaw, 1994)
  • Terra Sonâmbula, 1992
    - Sleepwalking Land (translated by David Brookshaw, 2006)
    - film 2007, dir. by Teresa Prata, starring Nick Lauro Teresa, Aladino Jasse, Ernesto Lemos Macuacua
  • Estórias abensonhadas, 1994 
  • A varanda do Frangipani, 1996
    - Under the Frangipani (translated by David Brookshaw, 2001)
    - Plumeriaveranta (suom. Sanna Pernu, 2006)
  • Contos do nascer da terra, 1997 
  • Vinte e zinco, 1999 
  • Raiz de orvalho e outros poemas, 1999 
  • O último vôo do flamingo, 2000
    - The Last Flight of the Flamingo (translated by David Brookshaw, 2004)
    - Flamingon viimeinen lento (suom. Sanna Pernu, 2001)
  • Mar me quer, 2000
  • O gato e o escuro, 2001 (illust. by Danuta Wojciechowska)
  • Na berma de nenhuma estrada, 2001
  • Um rio chamado tempo, uma casa chamada terra, 2002
    - film 2005, dir. by José Carlos de Oliveira, starring Anabela Moreira, Jorge Mota, Cândida Bila
  • Contos do nascer da terra, 2002 (5th ed.)
  • O Fio das Missangas, 2003
  • O País do Queixa Andar, 2003
  • Chuva pasmada, 2004 (illust. by Danuta Wojciechowska)
  • Pensatempos: textos de opinião, 2005
  • O outro pé da sereia, 2006
  • O beijo da palavrinha, 2006 (illust. by Malangatana)
  • Venenos de Deus, Remédios do Diabo, 2008
  • Jesusalém, 2009
    - The Tuner of Silences (translated by David Brookshaw, 2013)
  • E se Obama fosse africano? e outras interinvenções, 2009 
  • Pensageiro frequente, 2010
  • A confissão da Leoa, 2012
    - Confession of the Lioness (translated by David Brookshaw, 2015)
  • Pensativities: Selected Essays, 2015 (translated by David Brookshaw, from collections originally published as Pensatempos: textos de opinião, 2005; E se Obama fosse africano? e outras interinvenções, 2009; Pensageiro frequente, 2010)

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