Mia Couto discusses colonialism, Covid-19, and silence.

PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.

Mia, I thought I’d start by asking quite a large question. I know you’re not a huge fan of labels – particularly those forced on writers by people who aren’t writers – but I want to ask you about the word ‘postcolonial’. Is that a phrase in which you put stock, in a literary context, and from a Mozambican perspective?

You know, we need these classifications – need a way to organise how we think, how we see the world. To find our place in chaos. But, speaking as a Mozambican, colonialism is not over. We had a rupture, a political rupture, and we thought that was that. We proclaimed independence. But of course colonial relationships – in sometime subtle, sometimes unsubtle ways – prevail. When we make obvious borders between pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial, we claim ‘we’re all friends’. But it’s not that simple.

Many of your works are situated in ostensible ‘post-independence’ moments, but they reveal in being so that those moments are beset by conflict and the hangovers of colonialism. It feels like this is one of the many markers you use to reveal fallacies of postcoloniality. The Sword and the Spear – your latest book to be published in English translation, the middle title in a trilogy – explores a moment of conflict and colonialism, but a much earlier one; one of which you don’t have lived experience in the way that you do of the moment of independence. What made you move back in time?

Yes, that time is indeed still our time. What interested me in this story – which is based on, let’s say, real history – is that it represents internal colonial relationships between Mozambican ethnic groups that reflect European modes of colonialism. Ngungunyane was recuperated by the independence narrative as a hero in the fight against colonial power. That is, in part, true, but this elides the underground connections between Ngungunyane and the King of Portugal, and their rivalry specifically in the terms of ‘possessing’ large parts of Mozambique. The ways in which we have tried to rehabilitate the past to make it the foundation of a new nation needs, to me, to be further and further explored.

The Sword and the Spear also doesn’t yearn for a mythic pre-colonial. It explores this complex moment that isn’t the sword versus the shield, but rather a messy combination of them.

It’s interesting: when I was preparing the book, it was easy from the Portuguese sources – there are a lot of print materials – but from the Mozambican side it has to be from the oral context. When I’d speak to my friends who are Chopi, nobody would want to talk. They all said: don’t touch this. I realised, then, that the story had to be one of a writer trying to follow this escaping, hidden, silent past.

All that to say: there’s no pre- or post- – it’s all still very alive. People are still afraid of going against the official picture, because the independence fight on which the modern nation-state of Mozambique is built is the fight for national unity. We are still trying to produce nations that are premised on European, colonial concepts. And we should try to piece together these small lies to reveal a bigger story.

Quite – nation-states are fundamentally colonial things.

I’d like to discuss this idea that you mention of being a writer in an oral culture, something which I think you render consummately. Do you think you’ve been successful, as it were, as writer working with orality? Has the relationship between the spoken and the written word changed, for you, throughout your career?

I have European ancestry, but my parents were all about poetry. My father was a poet, my mother a storyteller. Orality was in my house from the beginning. I realised that to be a writer I had to be a kind of translator. In my town, there were two indigenous languages. I had the ‘privilege’ of living in a colonial town that wasn’t an utter colony – there weren’t geographic boundaries for ethnic groups in the way that there were in other towns in Mozambique. As a child, I could cross the road and be with people who weren’t like me, and that was its own privilege: I could hear stories from my house, and stories from the street. And I became a kind of dealer – a translator – of language and story and culture and silence.

Have you had much internal conflict about ‘inhabiting’ other voices or identities – about the ethics of it, or the ease of it?

It doesn’t come naturally. I think it’s about availability – about what is available to me because of my experiences, and what is permissibly made available to me be others.

In Mozambique – as in many places – indigenous communities are not over there; they are everywhere. People use their own languages every day, in the cities, everywhere. They transmit their own culture, stories, values. And some of that I am given access to – some of it is made available to me. Mozambique is a place where false boundaries are shown up. And so, whilst it is not straightforward to imagine another life, the boundaries between self and other are therefore always being interrogated.

Writing in other voices is about removing the boundaries between lives. And it is elemental. Take a stone or a river or a mountain: if you say to my biologist colleagues that, last night, you were a stone or a river or a mountain, they will say, Yeah, okay. There is a recognition, in Mozambique, that these boundaries between lives are truly blurred. Personally, overcoming this final frontier of imagination happened when my father died. I am not a religious person, but I am ‘believe’ in the sense that I believe my father still exists inside me. So my story is the story of many people, many things; like so much of Mozambique, my identity is not singular.

The way your books render that are something I love about them. You’ve touched, there, on your training as a biologist, and your affinity with the natural world of which we are a part. In a previous interview, you said that you like to ‘divide yourself’, and that your lives as a writer and an environmentalist are distinct. I want to ask nevertheless how much those two practices influence each other.

There’s a Mozambican poet that once said something that’s very important to me: I am not a divided person; I am sharing myself. For me, there’s no division. My passion for biology does not derive from a hope of discovering ‘truth’. Biology, like literature, is polluted by the idea of classifying, labelling, ordering. For me, biology just gives me a language to understand (and to share other languages with) apparently different creatures.

To come back to the idea of identity: biology gives me certainty that I am a world of different identities. I share within me the identities of viruses and bacteria and fungi – and they are part of me, they are me. You know, we always frame ‘nature’ as something other, something that we see. Even in the name of ‘saving the environment’, we make it external to ourselves. This is another false boundary – between the natural and the human – which interests me in the shared lives I live. Covid-19, I hope, will make us rethink our relationship to the other, and the other being inside us. This is what I also try to do in my writing.

Maybe I can tell you a story?

Please do. I’d love that.

One day recently, I was in the Ministry of Health, and a group of indigenous elders arrived unannounced. They said, ‘We don’t understand what is happening. We don’t know this virus; our ancestors do not know this virus. But, when you find the language of this virus, please let us know. Use us to speak to it, to discover what has caused this loss of harmony’. And this was a very real offer. There’s a very different approach, here: one that is based in language, and based on the generosity of finding equilibrium rather that purifying and purging in a rather military way. It is all about language – the language we use to talk about the language we use, and how that determines how we live our lives.

To use ‘language’ as a bit of a segue: you’ve spoken about different modes of translation involved in writing stories in a multilingual, oral context, and I’d like to ask about your own experience of having your books translated into other languages and contexts. What has that meant to you? And how closely have you worked with your translators (when you’ve been able to)?

Whenever it’s possible, I like to work with the translator as far as they want to work with me. More often than not, translators find mistakes in my work, which I think says a lot. When I can’t work closely with the translator, because I don’t have the other language, so be it – it’s their story then. Something that also interests me in being translated is that Portuguese is such an alive language – mainly because of the contribution to its recent development from Brazil and the African Lusophone. When the original language is so on the move, so are its translations.

How much have you seen that linguistic exchange reflected in the exchange of literary cultures – say between Brazil and Mozambique, or Angola, or Cabo Verde?

They don’t know each other – or they haven’t known each other. You know, they say that during the dictatorships there was more literary exchange; now, everything depends on the private sector, on the markets. There has been a belief that the literary markets of Brazil and Mozambique are not interested in each other. But recently, because authors from Angola, Mozambique, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé are starting to sell in Brazil, these channels have started to open.

It’s interesting how those contemporary book-market relations speak to the historic routes and relations of capitalism and colonialism. Capital is something I’d like to ask you a bit more about. Where are you today with the Marxism that was so central to the fight for independence? How have things changed for you, when it comes to ideologies?

I was a freedom fighter. We were Marxists. And then I realised that this is a very narrow box, and that the world doesn’t fit into that box; the world is more complex, and you lose the complexity if your vision is too limited. We gave up a lot for the fight for independence and freedom and socialism. But when I was a journalist and visited socialist countries, I started to realise that something was wrong with this application of the ideology. There’s a risk, when you realise that, that you feel deceived, betrayed, and that you swing the opposite way. Fortunately, I had time to think about it all, and so whilst things have changed for me, I didn’t end up in that ‘disappointed’ group who inverted their beliefs.

It was the right time to be a Marxist – I was young, I was fighting for freedom. But I learnt to believe that it is not an ‘ideology’ that we need, rather an observation and understanding. It comes back to your first question – to chaos, and not trying to fit that into neat, controlling lables. In my youth, it was easy: it was the workers and the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie were bad, and the workers were saints, pure and generous. This clear division repeats in other frames. And yet dialogue across division is good; recognising that things don’t neatly organise is good. That’s what I came to understand.

I feel a lot of what you’re saying is about listening, and, to me, your books are books that listen rather than say.

I hope so.

I have two related questions to finish: how has what you want to write about changed over your career? And has there been a story you’ve wanted to tell that you haven’t been able to?

Let’s see if I can connect the answers. When I was a child, I thought that all adults were writers. Everyone who came to visit the house – to visit my parents – were journalists or poets or other kinds of writer. It was absolutely obvious to me that this is what I’d become: I’d grown up and become a man and a writer. So I started writing with the perception that I was doing something entirely normal – just the same as growing taller. At a similar time, I realised that I came from a broken story; I didn’t know my family, I didn’t know Portugal. Writing, early on, became about rebuilding something that was absent.

I have this feeling that I’m still far away from what I really want to do. Every book is a step, sometimes in the right direction, sometimes in a very surprising and failed direction. I think my personal history is close, in many ways, to the history of my country; the difficulty for me of building myself in a single identity is the same difficulty that Mozambique has, on a different scale, of building its own identity.

Something that I have come to write more and more about, and something which is both the story I cannot tell and the story I want to tell, is the story of silence. The discovery of writing silence not as an absence but as a presence was such a strong thing for me. That’s why I chose the title The Tuner of Silence for one of my books – because I feel that, now, I’m tuning the silence more than the sounds.

Mia Couto, born in Beira, Mozambique, in 1955, is one of the most prominent writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa. After studying medicine and biology in Maputo, he worked as a journalist and headed several Mozambican national newspapers and magazines. Couto has been awarded the Camões Prize for Literature and the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature, among other awards. He was also a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2015 and was short-listed for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award. He has written over 20 books, and his work has been translated into 24 languages. He lives in Maputo, where he works as a biologist.

Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.

Photo credit: Pedro Soares

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s