The Worlds of Mia Couto

by Kristian Van Haesendonck (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection VIII, 184 Pages


Mia Couto has been recognised internationally as one of the most important African authors of our times. His rapidly growing opus shifts fluidly between various modes of writing, mixing historical elements with poetic and autobiographic ones, in often unpredictable and intellectually challenging ways. With each new book, the writer multiplies various original wor(l)ds, creating new challenges for his readers. Each of Couto’s texts opens up a rhizomic world which in turn contains (an)other world(s), inviting us to review and adjust our earlier interpretations of his oeuvre as a whole.
In The Worlds of Mia Couto a diverse group of literary experts sets out to explore Mia Couto’s oeuvre in relation not only to the imaginary worlds created by the author but also to the complex geographical, cultural and literary contexts that are woven into the texture of his work. While Couto has increasingly received scholarly attention, the international connections and connectivities of his work have been largely neglected so far. This book endeavours to show that Couto’s work can be read beyond its particular Mozambican and Lusophone context by paying attention to the broader African and global literary contexts, including Latin America, Asia and Europe. Mia Couto’s work is, for instance, of particular interest for rethinking, from the margins, established concepts of «World Literature», «globalisation» and the «postcolonial». The various chapters of The Worlds of Mia Couto focus thus on some of the – often unexpected – international connections across his fictional and non-fictional work beyond the Lusophone literary space, crossing cultural, linguistic and gender boundaries.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Mia Couto, from Mozambique to the World (Kristian Van Haesendonck)
  • Part I Worlding Mia Couto
  • 1 Mia Couto and the Antinomies of World-Literature (Paulo de Medeiros)
  • 2 From Nation to Imagination: Mia Couto and Language in a Comparative Perspective (David Brookshaw)
  • 3 Mia Couto and his African Context: Invention of an Origin (Ewa A. Łukaszyk)
  • 4 Worlds of Mia Couto: The Aesthetic of the Global (Peter J. Maurits)
  • Part II Mia Couto’s Worlds
  • 5 Literary Ethnographies: The Idea of Nation and Writing Back in Terra Sonâmbula and Macunaíma (Kamila Krakowska Rodrigues)
  • 6 Female Resistance and Engagement in Combating Intersecting Powers of Colonialisms and Patriarchies in Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes (Irene Marques)
  • 7 Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto: Myth and Poetics of Relation (Celina Martins)
  • 8 The Ghosts of Ngungunyane: Constructing an Ambivalent Hero (Fernanda Vilar)
  • Part III Mixing Wor(l)ds
  • 9 An Interview with Mia Couto (Kristian Van Haesendonck)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Series index

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The publication of this book was made possible thanks to a grant (USYRC19–22) I received from the University of Sanya. I sincerely thank the University’s Board of Directors and the Dean of the School of Foreign Languages, Prof. Dr. Weimin Delcroix-Tang, for welcoming this book project and for her continuous support during the editing process.

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kristian van haesendonck

Introduction: Mia Couto, from Mozambique to the World

Mia Couto is, indisputably, one of the most important Lusophone authors nowadays. Far beyond Lusophone countries, though, his writing is appreciated in all corners of the world, and this appreciation grows with every single new publication. Although he is a very prolific and much studied writer, Mia Couto’s many connections to the broader world – beyond Mozambique and the Lusophone linguistic community in which his work is usually situated and studied – have not yet been discussed.

Mia Couto is not only a master player with language, he also actively creates different worlds, while not losing touch with what we call ‘reality’ or, for lack of a better term, the ‘real world’. This volume aims to offer a different perspective from previous scholarly work on Couto.1 The diverse group of contributors approach Couto’s work as a confluence of different literary, cultural and linguistic worlds, without shying away from its broader regional and global political and social context. The Worlds of Mia Couto aims to create a dialogue between a number of experts in order to lift the writer out of his linguistic and national – Mozambican – confinement, opening up the study of his work to an increasingly globalised world and the inevitable debate on World Literature. However, the contributors attempt to do so without forgetting Mia Couto’s complex local and regional context: while he’s firmly rooted in the African continent and African cultural traditions, we should not forget – without any prejudice – that Couto is also a writer whose bagagem cultural has roots in Europe, for he is deeply familiar with Europe’s literary history and traditions, beyond Portuguese ←1 | 2→literature. Mia Couto’s own rhizomic roots and literary wanderings may well make him, as Paulo de Medeiros in this volume argues, an ideal point of departure to rethink the very concept of World Literature. However, his background also exposes Couto to easy criticism for being a ‘white’ African author with a ‘Eurocentric’ heritage; most critics still reduce African literature to essentially ‘black’ writing, further compartmentalised into a mozaic of ‘national’ literatures. Another reduction happens at the heart of literary studies, which usually approaches literature under different banners: whether it is ‘African’, ‘Mozambican’, or ‘Lusophone’ literature, each of these labels appropriates the writer as part of its own sphere, usually ignoring the multiple connections that exist with other literatures. Mia Couto’s work turns out to be a great example: it is sometimes difficult to get an overview of the different perspectives on the author’s work, and the way it connects to other writings. The debate on whether his work is rather this or that kind of literature proves that we still have difficulties in the humanities in accepting that an author can be ‘X and Y, and even Z’, rather than the classical ‘either X or Y’. The institutional fossilisation of national literature departments, especially in Western European academia, is one of the key factors that still impedes truly cross-cultural and cross-literary research in the literary field. It goes without saying that Couto has primarily been studied by scholars who mostly read and write in his mother tongue, Portuguese, furthering the gap between his international readers and scholars and his Lusophone readership; in other words, he’s usually seen as part of a Lusophone African tradition, locating him de facto as a member of a linguistic community he doesn’t necessarily identify with, as the author himself acknowledges in the interview included at the end of this book.

Thinking about Mia Couto’s ‘worlds’ doesn’t imply that we downplay the author’s local or regional coordinates, replacing them by some kind of more fashionable, ‘global’ perspective. It is primarily a matter of changing the centre of gravity from the national framework to an international – and explicitly comparative – one. The Mozambican context remains important, especially given its ongoing recovery process. Much of Mia Couto’s diverse writing has indeed been an attempt to understand and come to terms with his country’s troubled past, as well as a way to connect to other, similar ←2 | 3→traumas experienced by other African writers. Like other African countries, such as Rwanda, Angola or Burundi, today’s Mozambique has slowly been recovering from the traumas it suffered during the last few decades of the twentieth century. In the sixties and early seventies, Mozambique experienced warfare and destruction during the anticolonial war which led to its independence from Portugal on 25 June 1975, following the fall of the Salazar-Caetano regime in Portugal the year before. The new government of Mozambique, led by Samora Machel, the leader of the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO), turned the country into a one-party state. Only two years after the war of independence, a bloody civil war would hold the country in its grasp for fifteen years, claiming about one million lives. The conflict was in fact a proxy war affected by Cold War politics, opposing the Mozambican government and Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), a rebel group backed by South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). As a result of these violent wars, Mozambique sadly became known as one of the poorest countries in the world. Worse still, the country remained deeply divided, and isolated from the rest of the planet.

In spite of (recent) history being an important part of his work, Mia Couto’s work is surprisingly diverse, as his newest trilogy shows, and adds up to an already impressive number of publications, ranging from poetry to non-fiction, from short-stories to historical novels. But as a writer with many hats, one should not make the mistake of reading his work only from a Mozambican national perspective. Critics have already uncovered some of the key issues in Couto’s work, such as history, gender and language play, yet consistently in the author’s national context. I argue that this national scope severely limits the multiplicity of transnational perspectives to which the author’s work invites us (whether it is best to call these perspectives ‘universal’, ‘international’ ‘global’ or ‘cosmopolitan’, I will not discuss here). To label him a ‘postmodern nationalist’, as Phillip Rothwell (2004) does, is definitely to reveal an interesting tension at the heart of his work, yet it once more places the writer in an exclusively Mozambican context. Regardless of the question whether Couto is a ‘postmodern’ and/or a ‘nationalist’, or none of the above, a more productive approach would be to read Mia Couto’s work from a transnational perspective to see how it ←3 | 4→connects to other literary worlds and, indeed, to what we now often refer to as ‘World Literature’.

This book thus suggests it is time to move to another, transnational framework as an alternative to the way in which his work is usually studied, and also to go beyond Couto’s mother tongue as the exclusive language for scholarship, which has been a further restriction on his academic reach. It is not difficult, then, to see Mia Couto’s work as an embodiment of what Heidegger called ‘worlding’, a process of negotiation which aims to create a flexible ‘assemblage’ (a term Deleuze would later theorise upon)2 of ever-renewing perceptions and realities through which we must constantly work our way to secure the world’s openness: ‘The work as work sets up a world. The work holds open the Open of the world’.3 Coining the term in Being and Time (1927), Heidegger defined ‘worlding’ as a process of world making/becoming, and as such it is a determination of Dasein, offering measurable standards of being (both authentic and inauthentic); and worlding is also an ongoing process of the ‘thinging’ world. He turned the noun ‘world’ into an active verb, worlding, a productive process of world making, world becoming and ‘approaching’ the (empirical) world’s diversity. In his own unique way, Mia Couto engages in an analogous process of ‘worlding’, which he adopts not only in a philosophical but in a linguistic, poetic and also − in less obvious but no less important ways − a political sense, as the essays contained in this book endeavour to show.

In ‘Mia Couto and the Antinomies of World-Literature’, Paulo de Medeiros explores the writer’s importance in rethinking World Literature. Mia Couto’s work, he argues, forces us to reflect on what the term ‘World Literature’ means from the margins of an increasingly globalised world, while also gauging what is lost in between discussing the local, the national ←4 | 5→and the global. As Medeiros points out, the problem with World Literature is not so much that it can be a new way of designating the ‘other’, but rather that it is still a way of putting certain works on a pedestal, sanctifying them as supposedly central and above other literary works. Moreover, he regrets that World Literature is trapped in a set of contradictions, such as its preference for English as a ‘global language’, while subscribing to a self-proclaimed universality it does not live up to. The interest of focusing on Mia Couto’s work resides, furthermore, not just in his acceptance by World Literature Studies as an author producing World Literature, but also in what Medeiros calls his ‘speaking for the profound humanity of the dispossessed’. Critics, he argues, should not be tempted to normalise or domesticate writers such as Couto who experiment with language, as this could be perceived as an obstacle to his inclusion in World Literature’s realm. Finally, as a member of the Warwick Collective, Medeiros openly defends a materialist perspective based on World-Systems Theory, which has a focus on the periphery, a perspective Mia Couto’s work is, he claims, at the vanguard of.

In ‘From Nation to Imagination: Mia Couto and Language in a Comparative Perspective’, David Brookshaw analyses the Mozambican author’s diasporic links. He focuses on Brian Castro and Jhumpa Lahiri, two writers who have very different cultural roots yet whose work bears interesting similarities to Mia Couto’s, especially when it comes to the modalities of memory Couto puts into play. However, in contrast with Castro and Lahiri, Mia Couto neither longs for nor rejects the world he grew up in. All three writers, Brookshaw argues, emphasise the diaspora of the imagination and creativity, and especially the capability of containing what he calls the ‘diaspora of childhood’. The complex labyrinth of memory, and the writer’s painstaking effort to reconstruct it, is also the subject of the third chapter. In ‘Mia Couto and his African Context: Invention of an Origin’, Ewa A. Łukaszyk traces the process of how origins are (re)invented in the writer’s work. Mia Couto, she recalls, was born in the last decades of Portuguese colonialism. Łukaszyk’s perspective on the writer contrasts sharply with that of Brookshaw and Medeiros, for she places his work firmly in the Mozambican context, and from there she expands on the African setting: while ‘Mia Couto epitomises the native cultures of Mozambique’, ←5 | 6→she argues that the attention paid by the author to the notion of kinship is more than a coincidence, as it is linked to the way he conceives of his own links to the African soil. While Medeiros sees Couto as a key figure for the reconceptualisation of World Literature, Łukaszyk emphasises the self-conscious Africanisation process at the heart of the writer’s project: the African writer is a forerunner who consciously embodies − much like the character of Marianinho in Couto’s novel Um rio chamado tempo − what she calls the emergence of a ‘truly African intellectual’.

In the fourth chapter, ‘Worlds of Mia Couto: The Aesthetic of the Global’, Peter J. Maurits explores the connection between Couto’s work and the − slippery yet inescapable − concept of globalisation. Couto’s work, he argues, echoes Eric Hayot’s anxiety about the ‘world’ and its relation to totality. The term ‘world’ has gained currency in literary studies over the past decades, as proven by the paradigmatic shift to World Literature; however, many questions remain unanswered. Departing from a neoliberal concept of globalisation − neoliberalism as globalisation − Maurits draws on key insights of what is known as the ‘global aesthetic’, such as narrative interlacing and homelessness, which are relevant to the Mozambican’s oeuvre. Literary form, he argues, is deeply determined by globalisation, and so is film. Maurits’ discussion of Couto focuses, however, on one specific work: O Outro Pé da Sereia, a novel whose ‘globality’ − the perception and representation of the world as totality − he discusses in comparison to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Babel. Both the novel and film, he argues, deeply engage with a global aesthetic of homelessness and mobility, which in Couto’s novel is embodied by Vila Longe, the imagined ‘centre’ of globalisation.


VIII, 184
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (November)
Mia Couto Mozambican Literature Postcolonial Literature African writing World literature
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. VIII, 184 pp.

Biographical notes

Kristian Van Haesendonck (Volume editor)

Kristian Van Haesendonck is an Associate Professor and Researcher at the Language and Culture Research Center, University of Sanya (P.R.C.). He specialises in comparative Spanish American, postcolonial Caribbean and Lusophone African literatures. He taught comparative Latin American and postcolonial Caribbean literatures and cultures at universities in the Netherlands (Leiden), Belgium (Antwerp, Ghent), Portugal (Lisbon), Sweden (Växjö) and the United States (Princeton, Villanova). He is the author of Postcolonial Archipelagos: Essays on Hispanic Caribbean and Lusophone African Literatures (Peter Lang) and ¿Encanto o espanto? Identidad y nación en la novela puertorriqueña actual (Vervuert-Iberoamericana), and editor of Going Caribbean! New Perspectives on Caribbean Literature and Art (Humus) and Caribbeing: Comparing Caribbean Literatures and Cultures (Rodopi).


Title: The Worlds of Mia Couto
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194 pages