KGOU

Neustadt Prize Winner Reflects On The Civil War That Shaped Him

Nov 14, 2014

Today Mia Couto is the 2014 recipient of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, but had it not been for the events surrounding The Mozambican Civil War in 1977, he might never have become a writer.

In 1972 he was studying biology and planning to become a doctor. At the same time he belonged to FRELIMO, The Mozambique Liberation Front which, at the time, was pushing for independence from Portugal.

“FRELIMO said to me that I should interrupt the studies and go to a newspaper trying to infiltrate, so I became a journalist, not because I wanted to but because I was told to,” Couto says.

Couto worked at several magazines and newspapers over the next ten years and then returned to school to finish the biology studies he had left so many years before.

The revolution was a time of chaos and tragedy for many in Mozambique. It lasted more than fifteen years and resulted in approximately 1 million deaths, due to military casualties and famine. Couto describes it as a time when fear and suspicion were rampant, but feels some nostalgia for the time as well.

“At the same time some ethics were still present and the way we were helping each other in the cities that were surrounded by the war was really something that I miss,” Couto says. “Sometimes we think that the moral misery comes from material misery, but its not so linear.”

The Mozambican Civil War and its aftermath taught Couto about the importance of forgetting and moving forward after conflict.

Our official histories of our countries and societies are made of forgetfulness,” Couto says. “In Mozambique it was taken silently by everybody because they are conscious that tensions are still there. “

Those tensions exist between the members of formerly warring groups within Mozambique and have, in the years since the Civil War ended in 1992, become another element of the many identities of the people of Mozambique. Those identities have also been integral to Couto’s writing.

“I think if we accept that we are so diverse then we do not impose one single identity,” Couto says. “We have the pass to travel around these different identities and that way of traveling, that voyage, is so important and we take such a pleasure while traveling throughout identities that then we realize that what is important is the way, not the destination. It is the trip, not the destination.”

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On living through war: We cannot describe the horror. It was 16 years where we were surrounded, not just by the war but by the fear that is very ancient. We learned to suspect all others. At the same time there were values. This was a very big contrast because at the same time some ethics were still present and the way we were helping each other in the cities that were surrounded by the war was really something that I miss. Sometimes we think that the moral misery comes from material misery, but its not so linear.

On identity:

I thought in the beginning that it was important to find real identities. I'm speaking in plurals because Mozambique has such a big diversity of cultures and languages and religions. It was a quest for a writer to find that identity. Then I realized that it is a false quest because there are a lot of identities. We'll never find that one single identity. It helps me to be a happy person because I accept that I am a diverse person with more than one identity. I have stories and those stories give me different points of view.

I think if we accept that we are so diverse then we do not impose one single identity. We have the pass to travel around these different identities and that way of traveling, that voyage, is so important and we take such a pleasure while traveling throughout identities that then we realize that what is important is the way, not the destination. It is the trip, not the destination.

On forgiving and forgetting: I think it is not just that case in Mozambique or just in very cruel wars. Nations are born from this forgetfulness, this oblivion. Our official histories of our countries and societies are made of forgetfulness. We decide to forget and of course in Mozambique it is a big decision because we are trying to forget everything that happened during that period and I think this is a wise decision. It was taken silently by everybody because they are conscious that tensions are still there. It is a Pandora's box and if they open it, it will come again, the war. At the same time we need to remember. We need to be able to remember. I think literature can help the way coming back. No pointing fingers, not to have a guilty position but to be free to visit those recent times.

It's happening in Mozambique in a very underground situation. Those who have participated in the killings and the massacres, they have been chosen to have some kind of traditional therapy. They meet with traditional healers and the way they do it, those religions that are still alive in Mozambique are more important than this monotheistic religion. The concept of forgiveness should be related to these kind of values that are more present in this. The way it works is that in these therapeutic sessions, it is considered that you were not you when you did that. So there’s a kind of re-initiation to be another.

On the influence of women: I became a writer in my kitchen when I was a child because my mother and my aunts and friends were using that kitchen as a kind of magic space. While they were cooking, that was a magical dance and they were telling stories. They told these stories, not in a loud voice, so I think I discovered the magic of listening and telling stories in that moment. I think in Mozambique we have a very violent society, men against women, and I think men are afraid because they cannot deny that women are creating stories, so they want to take the stories from the women. Women can re-construct a time that is lost, the time of the war, creating stories and telling stories about that period. I think they will create those bridges that are still missing.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Mia Couto, welcome to World Views.

MIA COUTO: Thank you very much.

GRILLOT: I want to start by looking at your background. You were born and raised in Mozambique, but you started out studying science. It looked to me like you were maybe going to become a doctor? You were studying medicine, biology, but you became a writer instead.

COUTO: I was wrong. In two different moments I was wrong. I was wrong thinking that I should be a doctor. I didn't become a doctor, not because I didn’t want to, but because in 1972, I belonged to this liberation movement for the independence of Mozambique, whose name is FRELIMO. FRELIMO said to me that I should interrupt the studies and go to a newspaper trying to infiltrate, so I became a journalist, not because I wanted to but because I was told to. It was my commitment. I did it with pleasure. I don't have any regrets about changing my life the way it happened. As a journalist I was also interrupted because, in a certain moment, what was happening was a revolution. I lost my trust, so I went back to the University and became a biologist. That's what I do as profession.

GRILLOT: So let's talk about your experience during that revolution, during that independence movement. Mozambique was a Portuguese colony and won its independence and had then a brutal civil war. Tell us a little bit about that experience and what that was like. Then maybe we could get to how that informed the work that you did later in life.

COUTO: We cannot describe the horror. It was 16 years where we were surrounded, not just by the war but by the fear that is very ancient. We learned to suspect all others and I remember that during those years, there was nothing to buy in the shops, so the first thing we did when we came out in the morning was, "what should I bring to my house, to my children." At the same time there were values. This was a very big contrast because at the same time some ethics were still present and the way we were helping each other in the cities that were surrounded by the war was really something that I miss. Sometimes we think that the moral misery comes from material misery, but its not so linear.

GRILLOT: Can you expand on that a little? Where does it come from then?

COUTO: In Mozambique we never said the word poverty. A poor person is called an orphan. So a poor person is someone who doesn't have that system of social relationships, family, friends, and neighborhood. I think that is what is now lost. People don't have this kind of web of relationships and that is where you should survive by your own kin without expecting nothing from the others. 

GRILLOT: In your literary work, you tend to focus a lot on identity issues. I wonder if that relates to that experience you've had and this subject of trust that you were referring to and the moral and material dilemmas of life: the search for identity and the construction of that identity. Tell us about how that has influenced your written work.

COUTO: A lot. I thought in the beginning that it was important to find real identities. I'm speaking in plurals because Mozambique has such a big diversity of cultures and languages and religions. It was a quest for a writer to find that identity. Then I realized that it is a false quest because there are a lot of identities. We'll never find that one single identity. It helps me to be a happy person because I accept that I am a diverse person with more than one identity. I have stories and those stories give me different points of view.

GRILLOT: It's interesting how you are using this concept of identity not only as a personal construct, like we're multiple people all at one time. We nest our identities and perhaps identify with things on different levels and depending on the role we're playing at any particular time. Certain identities emerge but that reflection of personal identity is also evident in national identity. You started out by saying Mozambique is a community of many different kinds of people, backgrounds, languages. How do you manage that without having an identity crisis, not only personally, but in terms of your nation? That is something Mozambique has struggled with over the years and obviously we as individuals struggle with that.

COUTO: I think if we accept that we are so diverse then we do not impose one single identity. We have the pass to travel around these different identities and that way of traveling, that voyage, is so important and we take such a pleasure while traveling throughout identities that then we realize that what is important is the way, not the destination. It is the trip, not the destination.

GRILLOT: I love the way you put that. I think something else that you've emphasized in your work is the role of memory, or rather forgetfulness. You've talked about in previous conversations the importance of forgetfulness and not just random forgetfulness, but purposeful forgetfulness. In the case of Mozambique, for example, or any country or any society, any place that is struggling with recovering from these kinds of conflicts. You have to forget some things and you do it by choice. You choose to forget what has happened in order to move forward. That is reflected in your writing and your characters.

COUTO: I think it is not just that case in Mozambique or just in very cruel wars. Nations are born from this forgetfulness, this oblivion. Our official histories of our countries and societies are made of forgetfulness. We decide to forget and of course in Mozambique it is a big decision because we are trying to forget everything that happened during that period and I think this is a wise decision. It was taken silently by everybody because they are conscious that tensions are still there. It is a Pandora's box and if they open it, it will come again, the war. At the same time we need to remember. We need to be able to remember. I think literature can help the way coming back. No pointing fingers, not to have a guilty position but to be free to visit those recent times.

GRILLOT: Being able to remember but not have that tension is obviously one of the world's greatest dilemmas and that's often because forgiveness is not part of the picture. When you talk about forgetfulness, that we forget what happens and then there’s the cost of not remembering, but what if you work into that this issue of forgiveness. You don't forget but you forgive. That way you can remember and not have that tension and those lingering issues.

COUTO: It's happening in Mozambique in a very underground situation. Those who have participated in the killings and the massacres, they have been chosen to have some kind of traditional therapy. They meet with traditional healers and the way they do it, those religions that are still alive in Mozambique are more important than this monotheistic religion. The concept of forgiveness should be related to these kind of values that are more present in this. The way it works is that in these therapeutic sessions, it is considered that you were not you when you did that. So there’s a kind of re-initiation to be another.

GRILLOT: Maybe on a related issue, you've also said a lot about women in society and female characters have played a significant role in your work, but along these lines of forgetting, remembering and forgiveness, in particular, you've said that the role of women is crucial to shaping society. You have claimed that they are important for instituting peace, in particular in Mozambique after 15 years of war. You have said the "women don't have a tribe," meaning they transcend these boundaries. The role of women, are they critical to this process and perhaps should we be looking to women to help us engage in this process of reconciliation? 

COUTO: I became a writer in my kitchen when I was a child because my mother and my aunts and friends were using that kitchen as a kind of magic space. While they were cooking, that was a magical dance and they were telling stories. They told these stories, not in a loud voice, so I think I discovered the magic of listening and telling stories in that moment. I think in Mozambique we have a very violent society, men against women, and I think men are afraid because they cannot deny that women are creating stories, so they want to take the stories from the women. Women can re-construct a time that is lost, the time of the war, creating stories and telling stories about that period.

GRILLOT: And reaching out across different societies within Mozambique and in any society. We're reaching out to other locations

COUTO: I think they will create those bridges that are still missing.

GRILLOT: Well Mia Couto, thank you so much for being here today. Congratulations once again, you've really given us some insight into a country that we don't often talk about around the world and is often forgotten in terms of its history. Thank you for sharing with us today.

COUTO: Thank you Suzette, thank you very much.

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