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Mia Couto & Julián Fuks

Colonies of the mind

Published in 2018clockTime to read: 2m50s
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A shared sense of inherited exile is one affinity between Mia Couto and his protégé Julián Fuks, who wants help to venture from family history into invented worlds.

by Maya Jaggi January 2018
  • Mia Couto
    The Mentor
  • Julián Fuks
    The Protégé

Amid the palms and rusty cannons of an 18th-century Portuguese fort in Mozambique, Mia Couto and his protégé Julián Fuks are in lively conversation despite sweltering heat. The red battlements of the sandstone fortress on Maputo Bay are overlooked by the capital’s high-rises. Couto points to the equestrian statue of a colonial general and bronze reliefs depicting the capture of the Mozambican emperor Ngungunyane in 1895 to illuminate the history behind the trilogy of novels he is writing.

He shows Fuks the carved tomb of the vanquished leader who died in exile. The symbolic remains were repatriated some 80 years later. Yet the man now hailed as a resistance hero was himself a Zulu invader. “The Portuguese claim of glorious military victory was a fiction because Ngungunyane’s empire was already dying,” Couto explains. “When independent Mozambique was looking for heroes, they built a fiction erasing that he was a tyrant. Two big official lies about the same man. What interests me is how history is built from lies and how it pushes out other stories.”

When they first met a year ago in Maputo, where Couto lives, the Mozambican writer found Fuks “shy, introverted, serious – not the ‘typical’ Brazilian extrovert. We shared the same political and social worries about the world. Julián felt a prisoner of his own style. He wanted to cross a borderline, to open doors and have an adventure.” The younger author hoped to emulate Couto’s poetry-in-prose, and the way larger history shapes his characters. Fuks, whose fiction draws heavily on family history, wanted to “go further in inventing stories and characters, and not be so attached to reality”.

Mozambique gained independence only in 1975, while Brazil cut colonial ties in the early 19th century. “We’ve both been colonized by the same country,” Couto says, “so we have an urgent need to introduce ruptures between us and them inside the same language – Portuguese.”

That common tongue makes this mentorship groundbreaking – the first writers in Portuguese paired through the Rolex Arts Initiative. They write in a language overshadowed by the ascendancy of English. Fuks notes a “perversity in this system: if you’re a Brazilian writer never published in English or French, it’s unlikely you’ll be translated in Argentina. It feels like you need to go through the English language, and European eyes, to be read by your neighbours.” Yet for Couto, “It’s probably good to be considered distant; to keep something distinct about ourselves that’s not globalized.”

That neither is from Europe doubles their sense of writing from the periphery – in places with little direct contact. As Fuks observes, “We’re in ex-colonies that see Portugal as the decadent centre you went through to go anywhere.” The mentorship year has broken those barriers, enabling them to meet around the Lusophone world: in the Azores, São Paulo in South America, and southern Africa, settings for their fiction-in-progress.

Couto has written more than 30 books, translated into 20 languages, ranging from Terra Sonâmbula (Sleepwalking Land, 1992), one of Africa’s most important 20th-century novels, about the trauma of Mozambique’s 1977–1992 civil war, to A Confissão da Leoa (Confession of the Lioness, 2012).

He has won the Camões and Neustadt prizes, and was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize 2015. Fuks, also a journalist and critic, has written five books, including A resistência (The Resistance, 2015), which won Brazil’s Jabuti Prize for best novel of 2016 and the José Saramago Prize in 2017.

The mentorship began as Couto was finishing the second volume of his trilogy, The Sands of the Emperor, and Fuks was embarking on his fourth novel, The Occupation. They spent three weeks in the Azores, where Couto was researching Ngungunyane, who died in the Atlantic islands in 1906. “I thought I’d be listening to Mia talk to people,” Fuks says, “but the voices in his books come from inside; he’s inventing them. It’s good to see how he makes historical facts into literature.” For Couto, the line between fact and fiction is less clear: “I’m not looking for something real. We have different pasts in Mozambique; all of them are constructions, so I’m saying, don’t look at a single picture.”

The voices in his books come from inside; he’s inventing them. It’s good to see how he makes historical facts into literature.

Their time in the Azores was peaceful, Fuks says. “We met for lunch and dinner. Sometimes we talked about literature, but mostly other things.” They exchanged life stories of inherited exile. Couto was born in Mozambique in 1955 to Portuguese parents escaping the fascist dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, Fuks in Brazil in 1981 to Argentinian parents who had fled the junta’s “dirty war” in 1977; he learned to write first in Spanish before Portuguese. His paternal grandparents were Jewish Romanians who voyaged to Argentina in the 1920s, creating a “family of many migrations”. For Couto, “both of us found stories as a way of travelling in the past. I never knew my grandparents; the family was a phantom.” But his parents evoked what they had lost. “I understood we could build a world in stories.”

They exchanged work. “He’s a very laconic mentor,” Fuks says, “but his interventions are always surgical. After talking to him, there’s more clarity. My language is becoming more poetic, lyrical.” Couto says, “It went both ways. I would send Julián a text, and the next day we’d meet for coffee with the printout. I’m encouraging him to start something crazy, and he’s teaching me the limits. He produces one page while I produce 50, because I’m in love with language. I have difficulty controlling my characters. He can help me rein myself in.”

Couto has, conversely, counselled his protégé on writer’s block. “I look for the precise word, the perfect sonority, and get stuck,” Fuks says. “Mia has been trying to make me write like a type of speech, a text message, that doesn’t have to be transcendental.” For Couto, “All writers suffer from writer’s block. Giving it importance, it becomes a disease.”

When the year began, Fuks thought he would gain more control. “But what Mia could teach me was to have less control, without being too perfectionist. If I’m honest, this is an aspect I’m failing. But I’m rethinking everything I do.” One ruse to loosen up was to introduce letters into the text between his alter-ego narrator and the writer Mia Couto.

Couto, who combines writing with work as an environmental biologist, likens their relationship to symbiosis. “We benefit from each other. I’m more a big brother who took the same paths and says, ‘don’t be afraid’.” Fuks is struck by his mentor’s humility – evident in the way this national celebrity talks to the pavement fish-sellers outside Maputo fort.

In the cafe of Maputo’s Polana Serena Hotel, restored to its 1920s glory after civilwar ruin, Fuks describes the hotel in São Paulo that is the focus of The Occupation, where he had an unusual writer’s residency in late 2016. The Cambridge Hotel had closed in the late 1990s. Abandoned and full of garbage, it was re-occupied in 2012 by a movement for the homeless, and renovated to house 200 families.

“One night, we moved to occupy more buildings, I spent the first night with them; they were less vulnerable to police violence with journalists, artists, doctors there.” For Fuks, “it became political participation. I expected to be an observer, but you get attached to their struggle. Direct action to defend rights was more important than gathering material.”

He’s a very laconic mentor but his interventions are always surgical.

The homeless included refugees from Angola, Congo, Paraguay and Peru. Fuks spent months listening and recording. “But I needed to let it be inside myself and become something else. Maybe this came from Mia; how to deal with the material you gather for fiction changed with this book. I’m not looser in my writing, but in my research. Mia was influential because I could have been writing everything down. But I thought, I can remake this; the characters don’t need to be exactly the same. When it ended, I had very different material from what I expected; not just testimony, but direct experience of their fight, and feeling myself as one of them.”

Couto says: “Julián is trying to get outside himself and find other voices. But he knows what’s important are the stories people provoke in you. You look inside yourself, but through others.” Recalling the challenge to breathe life into female characters, Couto says, “I’m part of a generation that had to prove I was a ‘real man’ – all the clichés. I thought, talk to women: what would they do? Then I realized, that woman is inside me. The challenge was to lose those fears of accepting that part of me was female. I made that journey.” He adds, “My message to Julián is, become crazy, become open. Give the voice to women; let them tell the story… Let yourself be occupied.”

Fuks began the year wanting to move away from auto-fiction, yet was surprised by his mentor challenging him. Apart from one short story, he had never depicted his partner of 15 years, a journalist who was expecting their first child. “I wanted to preserve that part of my life,” Fuks explained, “but Mia said, ‘why are you taking her out?’ I started writing as he suggested, as an experiment. So it’s become a main aspect of this book: a writer whose wife becomes pregnant, her body ‘occupied’ by another being.”

As the mentoring year drew to a close, Fuks’s wife gave birth to their daughter, Tulipa. It was too early to say if or how she would find her way into her father’s novel. But the door was open. The adventure had begun.

Maya Jaggi is an award-winning global cultural journalist, writer and critic, and a Financial Times contributor. For a decade she was a leading profile writer for the Guardian Review.

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