“If there is an overarching drive that threads the collection together, it’s Couto’s commitment to recognize history’s numerous flaws, and to use this history to embrace a diverse future, full of “hybridities” of both self and cultural environs.” — Benjamin Woodard
Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw
305 pages ($22.95)
Mozambican writer and environmental biologist Mia Couto has published over 25 books of poetry and prose in his career. This work has been translated into 20 languages, and the man himself has walked away with both the Camões Prize—a sort of lifetime achievement award for writers working in Portuguese—and the 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
All of this is to say that Couto is one of Mozambique’s most beloved and respected writers. And yet, despite these achievements (which also include a finalist spot for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize), the author remains a relative unknown in the United States, where I’m writing this review. In fact, I’d wager a rather large sum that most Americans would be hard pressed to locate Couto’s homeland on a map of Africa. This dig is not meant to sound elitist, or cold, but rather to explain the priorities—for better or worse—of my country, a place that prides itself on the idea of worldly dominance while simultaneously knowing very little about the lands outside its borders.
Such literary and geographical ignorance is, of course, a shame for a number of reasons. First, Mia Couto is a fine writer who deserves a wide North American audience (he’s already a proven bestseller in Africa, Europe, and South America). Second, Couto’s latest collection of essays and provocations, Pensativities, would certainly speak to the unversed American, for the concept of world identity often takes center stage in the author’s text. As Couto points out in “Languages We Don’t Know We Know”:
“Never before has our world had at its disposal so many means of communication, yet our solitude has never been so extreme. Never before have we had so many highways, and yet never before have we visited each other so little.”
Expertly translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, these writings span roughly a decade of Couto’s nonfiction work, and are plucked from three previously published books: Pensatempos: Textos de opinião, E se Obama fosse africano? e outras interinvenções, and Pensagerio frequente. If there is an overarching drive that threads the collection together, it’s Couto’s commitment to recognize history’s numerous flaws, and to use this history to embrace a diverse future, full of “hybridities” of both self and cultural environs. For instance, in his opening essay, “The Frontier of Culture,” Couto confronts cultural illiteracy head-on, linking the issue to the lack of preparation Mozambican students receive in school. Raised primarily in cities like Maputo, these young citizens “behave as if they were emigrating to a strange and hostile universe” once landing in rural areas for University fieldwork. Couto goes on to tie this cultural remoteness to the creation of multiple citizenships within modern Mozambique, where city dwellers look down on those who live in the countryside. In addition, he sees this divide as a result of many citizens refusing to accept history as truth, arguing that Mozambique, along with much of Africa, has crafted an inaccurate, distorted history for itself, placing blame on others where it should instead look inward. “This twisted reading of the past is not merely a theoretical diversion,” he writes. “It ends up giving sustenance to an attitude of eternal victimhood; it suggests false enemies and unprincipled alliances.”
In this essay, as well as in many others, Couto reasons that Mozambicans would be better off embracing their nation’s historical faults, and that for true prosperity, all citizens would also strive to recognize their identities as not simplistic, but multifaceted. In several spots, he writes these thoughts as if providing advice to fellow writers. By way of example, “What Africa Does The African Writer Write About?” urges the writer to “deny his own self,” to become “a creature of the frontier.” Later in the collection, the author worries, “The words of today are increasingly those that are shorn of any poetic dimension, that do not convey to us any utopian vision of a different world.” Couto explains that Africans, like their writing, cannot be pigeonholed into one general, pure entity. “There’s no such thing as purity when one is talking about the human species,” he says. He sees the need for modernity as essential for the nation’s survival, but one hinged on Africans’ acceptance of living in a culturally bountiful world.
Couto’s talk of identity and hybridity saturates most of Pensativities, to the point where some may find his claims redundant. This viewpoint fails to recognize the fact that Mozambique is, as a Republic, quite young, having gained its independence from Portugal in 1975 and then toiling through civil war until 1992. Thus, it has existed as a stable independent environment for only about 20 years. When considered in this perspective, Couto’s ubiquitous musings on individuality translate as not only fair, but expected, as he is a constant witness to a country—flush with nouveau riche and mass poverty—trying to figure out its place in both Africa and the world.
Of course, not all of Couto’s essays ring true. When he tackles rap music, in “Baring One’s Voice,” he sounds largely dated in his observations, complaining that the genre has devolved into “facile rhymes” that merely objectify women and glorify violence. This stereotypical trouncing paints rap in a single color, which ultimately rails against the author’s desire to see the world as an endless prism. Similarly, the essay “The Fly or the Spider?,” which concerns Mozambican adoption of the internet, reads as if written by a technophobe. “I worry about the easy availability of magic wands, fantastical solutions that we arrive at as if they were downloaded,” Couto laments, yet how are his fellow countrymen and women to become a greater part of the global community without such technology? Though the author spins these ideas back into his stance on creating a strong citizenship within Mozambique, his trepidation seems misguided.
For every essay that doesn’t quite stick its landing, however, Pensativities offers over a dozen that succeed. “Half a Future” eloquently honors Henrik Ibsen while simultaneously arguing for women’s rights. “Waters of My Beginning” transcends continents to share the feeling of growing up in a place littered with small town dreams, and “The City on the Veranda of Time” and “The Sweet Taste of Sura” take the form of travelogue-esque reports to dissect physical changes in Maputo and the Bay of Inhambane, as well as the impact these changes have had on Mozambicans. It is here, in these late entries, that Couto refines his overall point to its essence. When looking at Maputo, he says the city exists “on its wide veranda that looks over and into itself.” It’s a mantra that all readers can absorb, for isn’t that how we all should be motivated to live: at harmony with both ourselves and our world?
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Revolver, Maudlin House, and Cheap Pop. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review Online, Alternating Current, 5×5, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.