Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2014: Winner

Mia Couto accepted the 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature yesterday, making him the 23rd laureate and the first Mozambican author both to be nominated and to win the prize. Born in Mozambique in 1955, he initially studied medicine and has gone on to become a biologist for Mozambique’s only national park, the Limpopo Transfrontier Park. He has risen to become one of  the greats of African literature, with a body of work that includes both prose and poetry. In 2007, he became the first African writer to win the Latin Union literary prize, a prestigious prize aimed at promoting the translation of outstanding works amongst Latin languages, and only the fourth Portuguese language writer to do so.

Mia Couto, Mozambique (1955)

Mia Couto, Mozambique (1955)

Couto expressed his gratitude for the honour, saying,

This award is timed perfectly, as Mozambique is about to go through a difficult time. For me personally, this award is certainly a relief, a ray of sunshine, at this sad national moment.

Couto is referring, of course, to the recent clashes between government troops and rebels that threaten to plunge the country back into civil war. A salient characteristic of his writing, aside from its magical realism, is its link to Mozambique’s national conscious. He began his literary career at the start of Mozambique independence struggle, and Sleepwalking Land, which was selected as his representative work, is told by two refugees of Mozambique’s civil war as it draws to a close. The two find notebooks strewn amongst the dead bodies, and, finding that they were written before the start of the war, begin to read them aloud to each other. An international jury at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair named the work one of the twelve best African books of the twentieth century.

Couto was initially nominated by Gabriella Ghermandi, an Italo-Ethiopian writer who is a co-founder and member of the editorial board for El Ghibli, an online literary magazine for migrant writing, and who won the Migrant Prize for Literature in 1999. In her nominating statement, Ghermandi wrote,

Some critics have called Mia Couto ‘the smuggler writer,’ a sort of Robin Hood of words who steals meanings to make them available in every tongue, forcing apparently separate worlds to communicate. Within his novels, each line is like a small poem.

Executive director of World Literature Today Robert Con Davis-Undiano added,

Mia Couto is trying to lift the yoke of colonialism from a culture by reinvigorating its language. A master of Portuguese prose, he wants to lift that burden one word, one sentence, and one narrative at a time, and in this endeavour he has few if any peers.

The Neustadt is the second prize Couto has picked up this year, having already won the Camões Prize for Literature, an esteemed prize for Portuguese writers, earlier this year. His name also cropped up in Ladbroke’s list of Nobel Prize for Literature odds, albeit towards the bottom of the list. But, given the Neustadt’s close relationship with the Swedish Academy, a rise in his Nobel odds for the coming year would not be inconceivable. As we mentioned previously, the Swedish Academy has lavished praise on the Neustadt and its parent magazine, World Literature Today, going so far as to call it one of the “best edited and most informative literary publications,” which is no small praise from the reticent academy. The Neustadt has a sharp eye for budding and blooming talents across the globe, and authors who are nominated often end up in the Nobel’s pool of contenders further down the line. Thirty winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, including Gabriel García Marquez, Tomas Transtörmer, Mo Yanand Czeslaw Milsoz have won, been nominated, or have served as a juror for the Neustadt.

As it stands, Couto’s works have been translated into twenty different languages, but many of his more recent works have yet to be translated into English. Winning a major prize on the international stage will, hopefully, provide an impetus to translate more recent novels such as Venenos de Deus, Remédios do Diabo (2008) and A Confissão da Leoa (2012) for a wider readership.

Further Reading:

Read Mia Couto’s post-win interview, in which he discusses his approach to writing, his influences, and the role of Mozambique in his works. via Policy Mic

See the official announcement on the Neustadt’s official website

Read up on the history of  the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the full list of the 2014 nominees in our previous post.

Para los hispanohablantes, este anuncio del Premio Unión Latina de Literaturas Romances da buena contextualización sobre Mia Couto y su obra; in realidad, creo que le da mas detalles y fondo que lo del Neustadt.

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