Magazine article World Literature Today

Mia Couto: A Literary Voice from Mozambique

Magazine article World Literature Today

Mia Couto: A Literary Voice from Mozambique

Article excerpt

MIA COUTO WAS BORN IN BEIRA, Mozambique's second city, in 1955, and belongs to a generation of writers who emerged during the 1980s and were concerned with exploiting the aesthetic potential of Mozambican literature rather than the utopian truths imposed by the revolutionary regime that had come to power in 1975, following the country's independence from Portugal. For his part, Couto was close to the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (frelimo) and interrupted his university studies in Maputo, the country's capital, in order to become director of the state news agency and editor of a news magazine and daily newspaper in the late 1970s and early '80s. However, intensive travel throughout his country at this time gave him a sense of Mozambique's cultural diversity and imbued in him a desire to reflect in his work the many different voices that went to make up Mozambican identity. Indeed, he came rapidly to the conclusion that one cannot talk about a monolithic national identity in a nation-state like Mozambique, which contains such a wide diversity of linguistic, ethnic, and religious cultures within its borders. Identities are, inevitably, plural and prone to change and reinterpretation and, above all, involve shifting narratives.

Couto had written from an early age, coming as he did from a family in which his father was a journalist and poet, his mother a skillful teller of stories to her children. His first published book, in 1983, was a collection of poetry entitled Raíz de orvalho (Root of dew), but it was in the short narrative genre that he would first reach international acclaim. His collection of short stories Vozes anoitecidas (subsequently translated as Voices Made Night) attracted the attention of a Lisbon publisher in 1986 and had an immediate impact among a Portuguese readership avid for novelty and experimentation in literature. Indeed, it was Couto's unorthodox and playful use of language, inspired by the way Mozambicans spoke Portuguese, along with his use of oral storytelling techniques, and his poetic evocation of the harsh realities of Mozambique, then at the height of its long civil war, that gave him a major following in Portugal and later Brazil. Since then, he has published some thirty books, including further collections of short stories, poetry, novels, essays, and children's stories. He is his country's most prolific and best-known writer, his work having been translated into more than twenty languages, and having been the subject of various international awards, including the Camões Prize in the lusophone world, the Prix de l'Union Latine, based in France, and, most recently, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in the United States. His first novel, Terra sonâmbula (1992; Eng. Sleepwalking Land) was named one of the twelve best novels to come out of Africa in the last century by a panel of judges at a book fair in Zimbabwe. Since then, he has published eight more novels that engage, in one way or another, with Mozambique's recent history-namely, the civil war, the transition to peace, postwar reconstruction, and the country's jettisoning of the last vestiges of revolutionary socialism in favor of parliamentary democracy and what some see as a virulent form of capitalism with attendant widening social inequalities.

Couto's work evokes such themes as the encounters and profound misunderstandings between the traditional, rural world of Mozambique and that of urban modernity; the treatment of women in the country's still-patriarchal society and the issue of domestic violence; corruption and poverty of spirit among sections of the country's fledgling elite; and issues relating to conservation, a subject close to the author's heart because of his work as an environmental biologist. …

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