We Are Made of Memories: A Conversation with Mia Couto


At Work

350px-Mia_CoutoBorn in 1955 in Mozambique, to Portuguese immigrants, Mia Couto is widely considered one of the foremost wielders of the Portuguese language. He has written more than twenty books that have been translated into at least as many languages, and those translated into English since 1990 have garnered him a dedicated Anglophone following. Although Couto’s fiction varies widely, he frequently deals with Mozambique’s civil war, which erupted in 1977, two years after he turned twenty and his nation gained its independence from Portugal. His recurrent use in his work of surreal effects has led many critics to liken his fiction to Latin America’s magical realism, a label at which he bristles.

The Tuner of Silences, brought into English by Couto’s longtime translator David Brookshaw and published this year by Biblioasis, tells the story of Vítalico, a father who has dragged his children to an abandoned Mozambican nature preserve after the horrifying death of his wife. As Couto explores the nature of Vítalico’s regime and its eventual collapse, he delves into frequent obsessions: the construction of identity and the role that memory and language play in that process.

Recently, over e-mail, I discussed Tuner, influences, labels, and the curious provenance of Couto’s first name in our e-mail correspondence.

You’ve mentioned the Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira and the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa as two influences on your understanding of the Portuguese language. What sorts of cultural influences from within Mozambique have you drawn from?

I usually refer to Luandino and Guimarães Rosa as those who inspired me most, but the most important influences on my writing come from those I can’t identify, persons that populated my childhood, my hometown in the Indian ocean, the neighborhood where I was born and where I started to dream about other places and other lives. So, ironically, the main source of inspiration of my writing came from the nonwriting world. Oral culture is still dominant in Mozambique, and the ability to convert reality into stories is still very alive here, even in the urban areas. Storytelling is not exclusively a skill of the griots—the common citizen shares this capacity, telling stories not just with words but with their whole body, using dance and songs and poetry as a unique language.

In the popular press, your writing is commonly labeled as “magical realist.”

I don’t grant any importance to those kinds of classifications, since they weren’t created by writers. Moreover, I have serious doubts that they describe African writing, since they come from elsewhere. For an African writer it would be very difficult to think of realism and magic as two pillars of the same concept, because the way we feel and think results from the permanent crossing of those frontiers. This desire of crossing borders between categories is not particular to Africa. It is our common desire as human beings.  

The Tuner of Silences deals with the desire to impose boundaries and the human instinct to transgress them. It’s about a father’s attempts to isolate himself and his children within a personal sanctuary—which he names “Jezoosalem”—after the death of their mother, and the children’s desire to leave. This dynamic is upset by the arrival of a woman from Portugal, Marta. As a colonizer, Portugal has its own border dynamics with Mozambique—at one point you even call Lisbon “the most African of European cities”. What did you find interesting about telling the story of these people?

The search for identity is the main issue in all of my books. I was born in a country and a historical moment where defining one’s identity was of vital importance. Identity is always a mirage, but during the last thirty years in Mozambique we were given a clear definition of who we are and where we belong. That national identity demanded a voyage—from tribe to nation, from race and gender to a unified entity. Such a journey is the result of crossing borders, but it’s defied by the fact that all creatures are defined by boundaries. In my own work as a biologist, I constantly see how nature hungers for these boundaries. But those are made in nature, and we, in our society, find it difficult to build permeable boundaries, limits made from compromise and happenstance. The main characters in the Tuner of Silences share this epic journey of traveling within our own limits.

What do you feel is the role women play in creating or breaking boundaries for men? Jezoosalem only really begins to come apart when Marta arrives. And I was struck by the novel’s very first line—“I was eleven years old when I saw a woman for the first time, and I was seized by such sudden surprise that I burst into tears.”

I think the role of women is universal—they are more intimately linked than men with the social fabric that continually reshapes a culture and society. In the case of Mozambique, women are incredibly dynamic in terms of day-by-day survival. They also played a fundamental role in the reconstruction of peace and society after sixteen years of civil war. We have a saying in Mozambique—women don’t have a tribe. This proverb evokes women’s capacity to cross boundaries and create more cohesive and harmonious identities. As an author I very much prefer female characters, as they allow for more complex and enigmatic personalities.

Marta finds Jezoosalem liberating, as it frees her from the burden of living up to the identity she has been stuck with her entire life. At one point she says, “If we’ve got to live a lie, let it be our lie.” Is she right?

More often than not the beliefs that sustain what we call our identity are ideological constructs. They are illusions that create our image of ourselves and our place in society. Once, during a conference in Europe, a young man asked me to name a typical characteristic of an African. I replied with another question—what was, in his opinion, a typical feature of a European? You case ask the same question about any characteristic that we choose to base our identity on, since identities are historical and cultural inventions. 

What do you feel is the memory’s role in constructing our identities? The novel’s epigraph, from Hermann Hesse, implies that memory traps us within certain identities—“The entire history of the world is nothing more than a book of images that reflect the blindest and most violent of human desires: the desire to forget.” And the father, Vítalico, seems to echo that when he says, “Time is a poison … The more I remember, the less alive I become.”

We know we are made of memories, but we don’t know the extent to which we are made up of forgetfulness. We think of oblivion as an absence, an empty space, a lack. But in most cases, with the exception of neurological disease, forgetting is an activity—it’s a choice that demands the same effort as remembrance. This is equally valid for individuals and communities. If you visit Mozambique, you’ll see that people have decided to forget the war years. It is not an omission. It’s a tacit decision to forget what were cruel times, because people fear that this cruelty is not a thing of the past but can again become our present. And moreover, in rural parts of Mozambique the notion of nonlinear time is still dominant. For them, the past has not passed.  

The book also deals a lot with language’s influence over memory. One of Vítalico’s ways of controlling his youngest son, the narrator, is by attempting to deprive him of the ability to read and write. In a similar way, the father tries to control the intense feelings surrounding his past by not using certain words and names. Yet the father also prizes his youngest son because of his ability to evoke silence—he’s the titular “tuner of silences.” What do you see as the role of silence in their discourse?

Silence is an effort to impose a name on certain kind of situation. Where we see an absence of sound, other species will notice all sorts of signals. In the community where I was born and still live, silence is not seen as an absence. Rather, if a group of people are chatting, silence is something that suddenly appears. If that happens in Europe it immediately causes uneasiness. The fear of emptiness emerges, and someone will say whatever pops into his head to cover it up. In Mozambique, silences are also part of the conversation, but people are not afraid of sharing those instants. Because silence, for them, is not an absence, it’s when the dead and the lost are communicating with us. From my childhood onward I learned not fear silence, and to listen for voices and music that can only be expressed by the absence of words.   

I agree that calling something “silence” is better seen as a way of imposing a name on something that we can’t really define. In a similar way, do you see your use of surreal elements in your fiction as a way of talking about things that resist being named?

We have been told to believe in a predictable world based on laws and rules that we can understand. Likewise, we’re taught to feel uneasy around anything that doesn’t correspond to that stable and predictable universe. Storytelling in Africa, or anywhere in the world, can help us accept, without fear, the full complexity of a world that is simultaneously based in laws and chaos, compliance and disobedience. But the fear is still present, even while these stories fascinate us. We need to isolate and neutralize those moments by applying the word art to them, making them palatable as instants of creativity. Thus, we deliberately separate creativity from rational thinking.

I was curious about the book’s English title. In the Portuguese it’s Jesusalém, which is a recurring place-name, rendered in English as “Jezoosalem,” of the father’s refuge. But the English title, The Tuner of Silences, shifts the focus from the father to the son, as well as shifting from a place to more of an idea. Do you like it?

From the beginning, that title was in the running for the Portuguese edition, and it ended up being my second choice. I didn’t use it because in Portuguese it sounds much too poetic. But I like it, I am a poet.

To close things out, I wanted to ask about the origins of your name. I’ve read that it comes from your love of cats, as the Portuguese for meow is “miar.” Is this true?

Yes, that really is true. When I was two years old, all sorts of cats came to our veranda, where my mother fed them. My parents used to say that I didn’t just love cats, I thought I was one of them. So one day I proclaimed that my name was no longer Antonio but Mia. They took me seriously, and that opportunity to choose my own name was the beginning of my first fictional work. I had a character, and I am still working on the narrative for that him.

Mia Couto will be appearing in conversation with Anderson Tepper at powerHouse Arena on May 4, at 7 P. M.