The Mozambican writer António Emílio Leite Couto (born 1955), known as Mia Couto has emerged as one of the leading writers in contemporary Africa. His works employ the techniques of magical realism to convey the flavor of life in his East African homeland, and he is noted for his unique treatment of the Portuguese language.
Born António Emílio Leite Couto in Beira, in what was then Portuguese Mozambique, writer Mia Couto grew up to become one of the most lauded Mozambican authors of his day. Although Couto's novels, short stories, poems, and essays have been translated into more than 20 countries, his writings yield to translation only with difficulty due to their sophisticated composition.
At the time Couto was born, on July 5, 1955, his parents, Fernando and María de Jesus Couto, had moved from Portugal to the African colony. Both had literary talent: Fernando was a sometime poet who maintained a large library at home, and María was a gifted storyteller. Couto's parents gave him the nickname Mia, a Portuguese expression for “meow.”“My parents took photos of me when I was three, sleeping and eating with the cats on the veranda,” he later recalled to Maya Jaggi of the London Guardian. “I didn't just like cats; I thought I was a cat. Every child feels that more open borderline between themselves and other beings and creatures.” When Couto was 14, his father submitted some of his son's poems to a local newspaper in Beira, and they were published.
The period of political transition proved tumultuous for the young student. White Portuguese in the country considered Couto a traitor to his race and threatened him and his brother, causing them to go underground for a time. The country remained unstable as FRELIMO battled with the right-wing RENAMO group, funded by Rhodesia and South Africa. At one point, Couto watched as a publishing worker was seized by his FRELIMO comrades and charged with sabotage. Couto bravely argued that the man should be allowed to return home to say goodbye to his wife before facing trial. “She came and said he'd killed himself,” he later recalled to Jaggi. “I’ll never forget it. I was 19.”
From 1978 to 1981, Couto worked as an editor at the magazine Tempo, and for the next five years at the newspaper Notícias. Gradually, he became disillusioned with the government's Marxist ideology, and in 1986 he returned to his university studies, switching his major to biology and graduating in 1989. He taught biology at Eduardo Mondlane University and, in 1992, was named the administrator of the Inhaca Island natural area, which the university administered. This made Couto responsible for one of East Africa's largest wildlife reserves and for conserving one of its largest tracts of undeveloped land.
Part of what had motivated Couto to change careers was the negative reaction he encountered when his writing began to deviate from Marxist orthodoxy. His first book, Raiz de Orvalho (“Root of the Dew”), combined poetry and prose in addressing human relationships rather than political ideology. He came to wider attention with his second book, Vozes Anoitecidas, a 1986 work containing short stories inspired by his early life in Beira. The book was published in Portugal, with a preface by renowned poet José Craveirinha, and was translated into English in 1990 as Voices Made Night.
After several more works of poetry and short fiction, Couto published the novel Terra Sonâmbula in 1992, and this work appeared in English in 2006 as The Sleepwalking Land. A story within a story, the novel plays out during the long civil war that destabilized Mozambique as FRELIMO battled rebels funded by white-ruled Rhodesia and South Africa. After those governments dissolved and majority rule was achieved in those two countries, Mozambique's warring factions signed a peace treaty. As Couto's situation became more stable, his interest in his country's ecology continued, and while working on new fictional and poetic works, he presented his doctoral thesis, Geomorphogical Effects and Changes in a Mangla Community on the Ilha dos Portugueses. Meanwhile, Terra Sonâmbula won Mozambique's AEMO National Prize for Fiction in 1995 and was honored with a special prize from the Paulist Association of Art Critics in Brazil.
In 1996 Couto issued A Varanda do Frangipani (translated as Under the Frangipani in 2001). This work displayed his growing interest in the magical realism technique, in which a story is based on a fantasy element but develops in a realistic manner. The central figure of this novel is the ghost of a carpenter who died just before Mozambique achieved its independence and can now inhabit the bodies of those living through the post-independence period. A Varanda do Frangipani was the first of Couto's novels to be translated into English, and it was hailed as a penetrating exploration of the difficulties faced by Africa's newly independent countries after their European colonizers withdrew. Couto also wrote numerous short magazine and newspaper pieces, both fictional and factual, about Mozambican life; they have been collected in anthologies such as Contos do Nascer da Terra (“Stories of the World's Birth”), released in 1997.
As Couto's renown grew on the world stage—several of his works were translated into French and issued by Paris publisher Albin Michel during the late 1990s—he found himself increasingly in demand as an essayist and commentator. Among his most widely read nonfiction pieces was “Letter to President Bush,” published in the Mozambican weekly newspaper Savana in 2003 and widely reproduced on the Internet and in other publications. The essay (as reproduced on the Public Christian website) railed against U.S. intervention in Iraq. “I am a writer from a poor nation, a country which has already been on your black list,” Couto wrote. “Millions of Mozambicans wondered what evil they had ever done to you. We were small and poor: what threat could we represent?”
Couto's literary output since 2000 has continued to broaden his reputation and renown, and his firsthand experience with decades of war continues to imbue his works with authority in an increasingly violent world. In O Útimo Voo do Flamingo, a 2001 novel translated as The Last Flight of the Flamingo (2004), he dealt with the landmines that remain a major hazard of life in Mozambique; depicting the work of a United National mine-clearing squad, the book employs the image of flamingos whose migratory routes seems to have been disturbed by the mines. Couto's 2002 novel Um Rio Chamado Tempo, Uma Casa Chamada Terra (translated as A River Called Time in 2008) has become one of his most widely read works; it contains a description of a funeral in which the earth rejects the burial of a corpse: the ground will not yield to the gravedigger's spade until the man's story is told in full.
Couto has received major international recognition. After the publication of his 2009 novel Jerusalém, a work translated in 2013 as The Tuner of Silences, he was awarded Portugal's Camôes Prize, which in 2013 brought him a prize of 100,000 euros. The following year, he received the U.S.-based Neustadt Prize, which he accepted in a ceremony in Norman, Oklahoma. He was quoted on the Neustadt Prize website as saying that “this award is timed perfectly, as Mozambique is about to go through a difficult time.” The country soon faced renewed fighting between the government and rebel groups, and Couto's talents as an imaginative chronicler of war and its effects seemed more needed than ever.
Couto has received numerous other awards, both in Africa and beyond; an association of African critics named his novel Sleepwalking Land one of the top 12 African books of the 20th century. Couto is married; he and his wife, Patrícia, a hematologist with even deeper roots in Mozambique than Couto himself, have a daughter, Rita, and each of them brings a child from an earlier marriage. In 2012, he issued the novel A Confissâo da Leoa, translated in 2015 as Confessions of the Lioness. Based on real-life events, his story focuses on a pride of lions that attacked residents of a Mozambican village. Couto used these tragic events as a springboard for, in the words of a Publishers Weekly reviewer, “a surreal mystery of humanity against nature, men against women, and tradition against modernity.”
Booklist, June 1, 2005, p. 1760.
Publishers Weekly, May 18, 2015, p. 58.
World Literature Today, autumn 1994; January–February 2015.
Guardian online (London, England), https://www.theguardian.com/books/ (August 15, 2015), Maya Jaggi, “Mia Couto: I Am White and African. I Like to Unite Contradictory Worlds” (interview).
Neustadt Prize website, http://www.neustadtprize.org/ (November 1, 2013), “Noted Mozambican Author Mia Couto Wins 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.”
Public Christian online, http://www.publicchristian.com/ (March 29, 2005), Mia Couto, “Why Do They Hate Us? An African Writer & a US Bishop Give Prophetic Answers.”❑