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Mia Couto: “No One Becomes a Writer as if They Were Fulfilling Some Irreversible Destiny”

 
“I am often asked when I became a writer, and I have taken to not rushing my answer.” So writes 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature recipient Mozambique author Mia Couto in an essay for Granta in which he offers a calculated answer to this question. “The truth is, the question does merit a pause for thought, not only to think of an answer, but also to think about the nature of the question itself.”

This pause for thought on the moment he became a writer leads Couto to the conclusion that it might not be a single, specific moment that “makes” one a writer. “Most of the time the question is flawed. There is no such thing as the moment we become something. No one becomes a writer as if they were fulfilling some irreversible destiny. The verb to be is more accurate in these matters: you can’t become a writer, you are one,” Couto says.

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To appease those asking this impossible question, Couto shares four vignettes to single out moments that might have made him a writer. The first one is a memory from a time when his parents took him and his brothers to go see animals in the Gorongosa National Park. An encounter with a pair of lions shatters something in the six-year-old Couto “because I realised that I did not know how to see”, he writes.

The second vignette is about the stories his parents told them as children and the way they “summoned ancient voices, channelled the longing they felt for their homeland and made those absent voices return”. Couto’s parents emigrated from Portugal to settle in Mozambique, where he was born in 1955. “I am the child of emigrants, but I am also the child of their stories,” he writes.

The third picture painted by the author is of his childhood home, “a place of many voices”. He remembers how he moved between the street and the colonial house, how the veranda was the liveliest part of the house, how he would creep slowly past the mango tree in the yard to the kitchen where women with long skirts murmured secrets and “could conjure up the sanctity of a temple”.

The final moment that left a lasting impression on Couto is when a primary school teacher interrupted a lesson to read something he had written: a creative essay about his mother’s hands. Couto still remembers the ending of this essay and says that it “set off a strange revelation in me about the power of writing, and how the written word can encompass feeling”.

Read the beautifully written argument in defence of the idea that there is no one moment that makes one a writer:

I am often asked when I became a writer, and I have taken to not rushing my answer. A character from one of my stories would say that the difference between African wise men and European wise men is that the former are the last to provide answers. The truth is, the question does merit a pause for thought, not only to think of an answer, but also to think about the nature of the question itself. As Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa, my dear Mestre Rosa, would say: God may tarry, but He will surely come. In my own case, God has not arrived yet.

Most of the time the question is flawed. There is no such thing as the moment we become something. No one becomes a writer as if they were fulfilling some irreversible destiny. The verb to be is more accurate in these matters: you can’t become a writer, you are one.

Yet none of these considerations ever satisfy the curiosity of those who ask me when I became a writer. So I have given up working round the question’s misconceptions. Now I reply, and make up a new explanation each time.

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Image courtesy of Rede Angola

 

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