Mia Couto (1955-present) is a contemporary African novelist. His work is fertile for its engagement with Mozambican orality, garnering its linguistic playfulness, animist realism, and post-colonial memories. As such his works often speak from the ground, seeking the voices of the powerless to ironize against ruling narratives and revealing everyday struggles and poetry. Couto’s work has significant implications for social theory, not least through his reflections on post-colonial orality and animal-human relations.
Born in Beira in 1955, Mia Couto grew up during the years of Portuguese colonial fascism. As a young man, he moved to Maputo to study medicine, militated for independence and become a journalist after 1974. Working as reporter and editor, he travelled the country, gathering stories and witnessing the fallout of Mozambique’s Civil War (1977-1991). After 1986, Couto left professional journalism to study biology and dedicate himself to his literary creation. Since then, he has published over thirty books and worked as an ecologist at the environmental consultancy IMPACTO. In 2016, Mia Couto and his brothers opened the Fernando Leite Couto Foundation, a cultural centre to support young Mozambican artists. After Cyclone Idaí devastated Beira in 2019, this Foundation partnered with the Red Cross to help rebuild the lives of almost half a million displaced people.
Though best known for his novels, Mia Couto began with poetry, short stories and chronicles. His first book, Root of Dew (1983), assembled poetry; his second and fourth books, Voices Made Night (1986) and Every Man is a Race (1990) collected short stories; whereas his third book, Chronicling (1988) assembled newspaper editorials. In these early works, Mia drew on the linguistic playfulness of José Luandino Vieira and João Guimarães Rosa and developed his distinctive manner of narrating Mozambique’s many presents. In his poetry, he has also acknowledged the influence of Ho Chi Minh’s Prison Diary (1942) and the Brazilian Manoel de Barros, among others.
Mia’s first novel, Sleepwalking Land (1992) has been heralded by some as among the best African books of the twentieth century. Sleepwalking Land told the story of two refugees, Muidinga and Tuahir, who hide in a burnt-out bus during the Mozambican civil war. Through the discovery of the diary of a young warrior and the unexplainable shifts in the landscape around them, Muidinga and Tuahir understand how the war’s stories are their own. By Couto’s account, Sleepwalking Land was his way to exorcise his own experience of the war. It remains his only book representing this time directly. It is a haunting and necessary read.
Later novels, such as Under the Frangipani Tree (1996), The Last Flight of the Flamingo (2000), Jesusalém (2009) and The Confession of the Lioness (2012), all take place after the end of the war. In these novels, we often find ourselves in a Mozambican village dealing with the visit of an outsider seeking to understand mysterious occurrences. This narrative structure is leveraged into a social critique of the power relations at play but also towards blurring the sense of alterity different characters entered the story with. In these games, outsiders seeking to impose their authority fall into ridicule, whereas outsiders seeking to solve a mystery find themselves sharing in the villagers’ animist realism. In this manner, The Last Flight of the Flamingo tells the story of a UN envoy and his translator sent to investigate a mysterious explosion among peacekeepers in the village of Tizangara. The Confession of the Lioness, in turn, follows a lion hunter called to stop the deaths of the women of Kulumani. In this story, as readers have noted, Mia Couto offers a powerful exploration of gender violence and the entanglements between animality and humanity.
More recently, Mia has written a trilogy of historical fiction, Sands of the Emperor (2015-17). This trilogy retells the story of the war opposing the Portuguese empire and King Ngungunyane and the Empire of Gaza in late nineteenth-century Mozambique (1894-96). This history is significant as it was mythologized by Portuguese imperialists and fascists and after 1960s, in reverse, by Mozambican liberation fighters. Sands of the Emperor, however, avoids any lionizations of war and sidesteps a simplistic celebration of Ngunguyane. Instead, Mia builds his story from the voices of Germano de Melo, a banished republican sergeant, and Imani, a young girl from the Chopi tribe, who had resisted Gaza’s armies. Rather than the story of great strategists, this is a story told from the grounded voices of those caught up into unruly fates unleashed by war. In the last volume of the trilogy, Sands of the Emperor tracks Ngungunyane’s forced transportation to Portugal and his growing despair. For students of a global curriculum, Couto’s stories offer fertile ground to think about post-colonial narrations built on an embrace of the possibilities of orality, animist realism and everyday social struggles.
Couto, Mia, and David Brookshaw (trans.). Confession of the Lioness. London: Penguin Random House, 2015.
Couto, Mia, and David Brookshaw (trans.). Sleepwalking Land. London: Serpent’s Tale, 2006.
Couto, Mia, and David Brookshaw (trans.). Woman of the Ashes (Sands of the Emperor, Book 1), London: World Editions, 2018.
Brookshaw, David, “Mia Couto: a new voice from Mozambique.” Portuguese Studies 5 (1989): 188-217.
Chabal, Patrick. “Mia Couto or the art of storytelling.” Portuguese Literary and Cultural Studies (2003): 105-129.
Klein, Benjamin. “Animals, Animism, and Biosemiotics: Reimagining the Species Boundary in the Novels of Mia Couto.” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 6.3 (2019): 329-346.
Hamilton, Grant, and David Paul Huddart, eds. A companion to Mia Couto. Boydell & Brewer, 2016.
Rothwell, Phillip. A Postmodern Nationalist: Truth, Orality, and Gender in the Work of Mia Couto. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2004.
1) What are the productive ambiguities in Mia Couto’s animist realism?
2) Why are Mia Couto’s engagements with Mozambican orality important?
3) Are Mia Couto’s attempts to blur and bridge alterity successful? Use examples of gender, race or epistemology.
Submitted by António Ferraz de Oliveira