Meet Mia Couto, Africa's Celebrated Rebel Novelist
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the heart of darkness is so over.
By Tobias Carroll
“I’m one of those dead men who are still attached to life by their umbilical cords.” The speaker is six feet under, a corpse buried in the wrong way, whose mind is therefore occupied by the understandable attempt to get himself situated and at peace; he is “a dead man who couldn’t find his death.”
The writer of this character, who appears in the short story “The Dead Man’s Dream,” is Portuguese-speaking Mozambican author Mia Couto, who sure seems to like weird ghosts, the surreal, and using umbilical cords as a metaphor. It makes sense, coming from a working biologist who once trained to be a doctor. Couto is a polymath who not only sustains a lively scientific career but is also a former political activist once deeply involved in the fight for his country’s independence — and he’s one of Africa’s most celebrated novelists. And not just on the continent: His new releases sell as many as 90,000 copies in Portugal, estimates his editor Stephen Henighan, and he sells well even in countries like Mozambique and Angola, where readerships are small — and that’s not counting all the 23 languages he’s been translated into.
A finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize whose work has also won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Camões Prize for Portuguese-language literature and the Latin Union Prize, and has been short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing, 60-year-old Couto’s latest novel, Sleepwalking Land, was named by a panel of critics and academics as one of the 12 best African books of the 20th century.
Couto is an inventive writer with a habit of rebelliously creating his own syntaxes, blending Portuguese with a “rural African, animist outlook” (as his publisher says) and conjuring up magical realist frameworks — often to explain the political upheaval his country has lived through. And of course Couto himself lived through those times: A journalist during the wartime era, he paused med school to agitate for independence — as a propagandist for the rebels and a journalist editing the party newspaper. It was 1985, in the heat of the 15-year civil war, when Couto’s first book of poems was published. As the revolution advanced, he recalls, it “became something else,” and he lost his belief, he recounts matter-of-factly.
Excerpted from Pensativities, published by Biblioasis:
Deep down, the city and I shared the same condition: we were both creatures of the frontier. I am Mozambican, the son of Portuguese immigrants, I was born at the height of the colonial system, fought for Independence, lived through radical changes from socialism to capitalism, from revolution to the civil war. I was born at a pivotal time, between a world that was nascent and another that was dying. Between a nation that never was and another that is coming to be. The city is an umbilical cord that we create after we have been born.
Today, though, Couto chats with us from the nation’s capital of Maputo, his longtime home. The country is far from those wartime days, with a new, wealthy class, benefiting in part from a boom in coal mining. Couto speaks English with a slight accent, occasionally apologizing for his sentence construction. (He doesn’t need to.) He’s a perfectionist, sometimes pausing to loop back on a previous statement when he decides to avail himself of a better word choice. He’s distinguished-looking, with rimless spectacles and a mildly groomed beard. After a decade in journalism, he headed back into science — because in biology “there’s a narrative … Biology has taught us the most fantastic story: of life’s creation and life’s development.” He’s an environmental consultant by day and writes, if you believe him, all the time, constantly taking notes, particularly when traveling through forests and fields for work.
Making it as a writer during the war wasn’t easy, and he’s controversial — which may make him a darling of the international scene, but doesn’t make it easy to lock down readers on the continent. Couto’s work drew criticism from the government, because, he claims, it wasn’t “so optimistic” — and because academics weren’t fans of his offbeat language. He continues to use his public voice to weigh in on politics, says Ainehi Edoro, critic and editor of Brittle Paper, a website dedicated to African literature; for instance, calling out the South African government for attacks on Mozambicans. Internationally, though, he’s less controversial and more pleasantly greeted — especially in the heyday of the global literary scene’s love affair with African fiction. Indeed, Couto has helped birth this new tradition, continuing his poet father’s legacy and setting the stage for much of the popular work coming out of Africa today, says Edoro. She cites fellow writers like Booker Prize winner Ben Okri and up-and-comer Helen Oyeyemi as products of Couto’s appearance in the ’80s.
The first of Couto’s novels to make it into the U.S. on the tails of a big publisher — it came out in the States in July — is Confession of the Lioness, about a rural community besieged by mysterious, possibly supernatural, lion attacks. It’s a rare book, in part because Couto rarely uses autobiography (“one of the least autobiographical writers ever,” quips Henighan). In this case, though, the inspiration came from a real-life incident: Hunters in rural northern Mozambique were brought in to track a pack of lionesses killing locals. His day job brought him to this “adventure,” he recounts. He took refuge in his tent and “started to write crazily with a very small torch” about the incident, writing “as a kind of defense against the hard reality.”
Next up, Couto plans to look back into his country’s history, at an empire in the south of the country. The magic, this time, will lie in what J.R.R. Tolkien said is the key work of fantasy: world building. But this novel has no magic huntresses or lions — in Couto’s eyes, returning to history means “constructing a nation.” A new one, from the ground up.
Excerpted from Confession of the Lioness, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux:
A feather is heavy; a bird is also heavy. The lightest knows how to fly. So goes my late mother, Dona Martina’s saying. Well, as far as I’m concerned, both lightnesses are heavy, and my sleep never turns into nocturnal flight. A constant state of alertness makes me enter and leave sleep like a drunkard, makes me come and go like a shipwrecked sailor. It’s a legacy of that fateful night when Roland shot my father. Insomnia brings back unwelcome memories; sleeping washes away memories I wanted to keep. Sleep is my illness, my madness.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Stephen Henighan, the editor of Biblioasis’ International Translation Series.