Switzerland’s 2020 Jan Michalski Foundation Prize Goes to Mia Couto

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The past matters, says the new Jan Michalski laureate Mia Couto, only if it is present. The Jan Michalski Prize jury has agreed in awarding him the 2020 honor for his ‘Sands of the Emperor’ trilogy on Mozambique.

Author Mia Couto speaks and reads from his work in the Jan Michalski Prize ceremony. Image: Fondation Jan Michalski

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Mia Couto: ‘A Journey From Within’
Mozambique’s António Emílio Leite Couto, known as Mia Couto, has been named the winner of the 2020 Jan Michalski Prize, an honor he now can add to his 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and 2013 Camões Prize.

This new award recognizes Couto’s fictional trilogy As areias do imperador (The Sands of the Emperor, Editorial Caminho, 2015-2017, Lisbon), translated into French from Portuguese by Elisabeth Monteiro Rodrigues as Les sables de l’empereur,  Éditions Métailié, 2020.

An English translation of the first two volumes, The Sands of the Emperor, is by David Brookshaw (Macmillan / Picador).

The jury has praised the “exceptional quality of the writing, which subtly mixes orality and  narrative, letters, tales, fables, dreams, and beliefs that are at the heart of a historical reality—that of Mozambique in the late 19th century as it grapples with Portuguese  colonization.

“The author excels at portraying with  great empathy characters faced with the inhumanity of war, offering them an epic inspiration out of the lush natural world of Africa.”

The French edition translated by Elisabeth Monteiro Rodrigues

In winning the award, Couto is the recipient of 50,000 Swiss francs (US$56,222) and a pair of singular sculptures by the Nigerian artist Alimi Adewale, and made of ekki wood at 18 inches in height.

He speaks in his own comments of the trilogy being “a journey from within” and “an attempt to rewrite” Mozambique “from the voices and knowledge of Africans.

“Africa understands and has always understood that its history must be written starting with what they are.” And the past, he says, “only matters if it remains present.”

Each of the jurors is heard from in a series of videos created for the award, Julien Berjeaut making the point that the selection of the Couto trilogy “perfectly reflects the ambitions of the Jan Michalski Prize, an intention of bringing forward a unique voice and take us to distant worlds.”

Couto’s Africa, Berjeaut says, “is not well known and quite foreign to the European reader.”

That world is postwar Mozambique at the end of the 19th century when Portuguese forces and Africans vie for conquest. Both soldiers and civilians are caught on both sides of the conflict in a struggle to survive in a land stricken by violence.”

As the foundation clarifies, Couto’s trilogy was indeed originally published as three books, then later brought together into a single volume for the French rendition. “Sands of the Emperor is “both historical saga and enchanting tale,” the Michalski program writes in its rationale, “a powerful portrait of a  woman, and a story of love and humanity, succeeds in bringing together face to face elsewhere and here.”

The dual elements of the unique, untitled sculpture created by the Nigerian artist Alimi Adewale for the Jan Michalski Prize 2020. Image: Fondation Jan Michalski

Vera Michalski: ‘A Decidedly Particular Year’

The creator in 2007 of Fondation Jan Michalski, named for her late husband, Vera Michalski-Hoffman serves as the president of the jury again this year, and graciously updates everyone as she speaks from Lausanne about the award in this “decidedly particular year.”

Vera Michalski

With as many as 14 residents of the extraordinary Michalski Foundation center at Montricher having to postpone their residencies because of travel restrictions, two writers were actually able to handle lockdown at the facility. The program has been able to extend the duration of important exhibitions it had planned.

She speaks of “my great personal satisfaction” of the choice the jury has made to honor the revered Mozambiquan author. As it turns out, in the 11 years of the prize’s life so far, Michalski says, she has only twice submitted books for consideration, herself, and had them chosen by the jury. This is one of those two.

The translator from Portuguese into French, Elisabeth Monteiro Rodrigues, was a resident at the foundation in 2019, she tells us.

And she points out that the jury appreciated the way that Coutu and his translator “subtly combine orality and narration,” set in an historic context near the start of the 20th century in the “rich African wilderness.”

She praises Couto for his ability to combine his work as a biologist with his treatment of the African environment and confirms her admiration for him as defender of nature.

Couto’s sculptures are being shipped to him in Maputo, his prize winnings are being wired to him, and Michalski closes by proclaiming him, “an ideal winner” of the Prix Jan Michalski 2020.

We leave you for the weekend with Daphné Bengoa’s gentle one-minute video announcing this year’s prize. This little work is a tradition of the award and shows you the countryside near Lake Geneva in which the Jan Michalski Foundation is set.


More from Publishing Perspectives on Fondation Jan Michalski is here, more on translation is here, more from us on publishing and book awards programs is here, and more on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.