In his 2014 Neustadt Prize acceptance speech, Mia Couto begins by exploring the distance, beyond that of simple geography, separating his homeland of Mozambique from the United States:
But in the quest to affirm the uniqueness of our nations [Mozambique and the United States], we have created, even without knowing, a reductive and simplistic vision of the others and of ourselves. We suffer from a narrow and stereotyped vision of a multicultural reality. We are only able to recognize one cultural dimension of the world.
Couto’s life and his oeuvre speak to the power of a widened understanding of the world, one that revels in connections between modes of thought and states of being, one that illustrates the power of a life lived across boundaries. He’s a biologist and conservationist who publishes widely across genres, including journalism and lectures, children’s literature and short stories, award-winning novels and scientific reports. Since winning the 2014 Neustadt Prize and being named a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, Couto’s international exposure has aided his goal to build bridges between communities through literature. For English-speaking readers new to Couto’s work, 2015 provides new opportunities to explore his vision of a multicultural world, most recently in Biblioasis’ recent publication of Pensativities: Essays and Provocations, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, Couto’s longtime translator.
Born in 1955, the son of Portuguese immigrants to Mozambique, Couto lived through political conflict, economic struggle, and civil war, witnessing his country’s transition from a Portuguese colony to a part of postcolonial Africa. Some readers may question the perspective a son of Portuguese parents can provide on the challenges facing Mozambique. The country is just now addressing how best to develop its economy to take advantage of plentiful natural resources. It is also challenged by significant cultural and economic gaps between urban and rural Mozambique. A minority of the population speaks Portuguese, Mozambique’s official language. And in addition to a variety of languages of dialects spoken by Mozambicans, they are also divided by different religions: animism, Christianity, and Islam.
Readers of Couto’s fiction know his greatest talent may be the ability to listen to others, to value cultural difference, to capture transitions and question Western commitment to a non-Western authenticity, lives simplified and frozen in amber. Although Western readers sometimes describe Couto’s fiction as African magical realism, Couto represents the liminal state of his world, where animism meets Christian traditions, and where characters move across porous boundaries dividing urban centers from rural villages. In Pensativities, Couto puts his humanistic agenda into action, as he invites his audiences to join him in “exchang[ing] culture” and “produc[ing] hybridities.” In doing so, Couto interrogates Mozambique’s past, present, and future. He acknowledges the challenges facing his country across this essay collection: the struggle to create a productive elite in “Poor Rich People”; the challenges of giving birth to urban citizens and civic discourse in “Citizenship in Search of Its City”; the attempts to reach across cultural differences separating rural savannah from urban metropolis in “Languages We Don’t Know” and “The Waters of Biodiversity”; and the quest for models to turn Portuguese from a language of colonial oppression to one of postcolonial expression in “Dreaming of Home.”
Throughout these pieces, Couto moves gracefully and eloquently from stories to lessons and questions. He speaks to a variety of audiences: Mozambican and European, African and Brazilian, literary and scientific, indigenous and recently arrived. He engages readers who may know little of Mozambique’s past and present, but who emerge from the collection with an interest in Mozambique’s future. In the end, that future is difficult to separate from that of any reader who recognizes the critical need to meet globalization’s challenges with sensitivity. Through his multifaceted life and his commitment to celebrating difference, Couto takes us beyond the abstract language of postcolonial Africa, into a more pragmatic realm of action and responsibility.
And for Couto, this action is built on a profound humanism, in which literature provides the means not only to forge connections, but to shape identities. As he explains in “Languages We Don’t Know We Know”:
Languages serve to communicate. But they don’t just ‘serve.’ They transcend that practical function. Languages cause us to be. And sometimes… they cause us to stop being. We are born and we die inside speech; we are beholden to language even after we lose our bodies. Even those who were never born exist within us as the desire for a word and as a yearning for a silence.
Throughout Pensitivities, Couto reveals some of the myriad ways that words create us as well as our worlds.