Read African Writers: Woman of the Ashes, by Mia Couto

woman of the ashesmozambiqueMia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes — a historical novel — recounts a conflict in the closing days of a major African empire. In the late 19th century in what is now Mozambique, the empire (called the “state of Gaza”) resists the rule of the Portuguese. Imani, the novel’s protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old girl who acts as interpreter for the Portuguese military representative as conflict is imminent. Her family is torn, as one of her brothers fights for the Portuguese and the other for the African empire and as her . This is the first book in a trilogy: the second book is already out in Portuguese. David Brookshaw produced the English translation of Woman of the Ashes. I listened to the audiobook (narrated by Bahni Turpin and Joel Richards) and sometimes got a little lost in the plot, but the prose was gorgeous. Here are a few lines that stood out:

  • “Before long our nation will be a jumble of scars, a map forged by so many blows that we shall be more proud of the wounds than of the unblemished body we may yet save.”
  • “The difference between war and peace is as follows: in war, the poor are the first to be killed; in peace, the poor are the first to die. For us women, there’s another difference too: in war, we get raped by those we do not know.”
  • Men “are scared when women talk, and even more scared when women stay silent.”
  • “To describe the decrepit building as a ‘barracks’ can only stem from some huge distortion that fails to distinguish between fact and desire.”
  • “My father was a tuner of the infinite marimba that is the world.”
  • “Some of us humans share the same fate: we die inside, and are only held together by our similarity to the living we once were.”
  • “Wars never begin. When we awaken to them, we realize they started long ago.”
  • “War is a midwife: from the insides of the world, it causes another world to emerge.”
  • “Dark memories are like an abyss: no one should lean too far over them.”

Filipe Nyusi, current president of Mozambique, said this of the book: “It is better for us to awaken the ghosts than for the ghosts to awaken us.” (Actually, he said, “Mais vale sermos nós a despertarmos fantasmas que fantasmas a despertarem a nós.”)

Here is what a few other reviewers had to say:
  • Publishers Weekly: “a fascinating, intricate story”
  • Sheila Glaser, New York Times: “Couto conjures what he has described as the ‘many and small stories’ out of which history is made, offering a profound meditation on war, the fragility of empire and the ways in which language shapes us.”
  • Kirkus Review: “A rich historical tale thick with allegory and imagery that recalls Marquez and Achebe.”
  • Daniel Bokemper, World Literature Today: “A beautiful and grotesque force interweaving history with myth.”
  • Luísa Gadelha, Diario Centro do Mundo: “A leitura vale a pena tanto pelo prazer literário quanto pelo resgate histórico de Moçambique.”
  • Caíque Gomez, Poltrona Vip: “Mia Couto mistura história, mito e magia para narrar os horrores da guerra com uma linguagem muito poética, característica marcada do autor, como se ele quisesse nos reconfortar de alguma maneira, como se dentro desses horrores, ele nos devolvesse o humano.”
I plan to read (or listen to) the next book when it makes its way into English.
By the way, check out the Brazilian (left) and Portuguese (right) covers of the books. They win!

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