Communiqué de presse Prix Jan Michalski 2020

Montricher, Friday 4 December 2020

The 2020 Jan Michalski Prize for Literature has been awarded to Mia Couto for his trilogy As areias do imperador (Editorial Caminho, 2015-2017), translated in French from the Portuguese of Mozambique by Elisabeth Monteiro Rodrigues (Les sables de l’empereur, Éditions Métailié, 2020; the English version, Sands of the Emperor, is translated by David Brookshaw and is available from World Editions).

The jury hailed 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. Without the least trace of Manicheism, 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 Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing and Literature will award the prize on line this year, the 9 December. You can follow the event and its various guest speakers starting at 9 am (8 am GMT) at our site,

Born in 1955, the son of Portuguese emigrants living in Mozambique, the writer and biologist Mia Couto grew up in Beira, then moved to the city of Maputo. He began by studying medicine but interrupted his studies to join the anti-colonialist liberation movement in the country, FRELIMO (the Mozambique Liberation Front). Following the declaration of Mozambique’s independence from Portugal in 1975, he became a journalist, notably for Tempo and Noticias, before embarking on a career in biology, specializing in the study of coastal zones, alongside his work as a writer. He also taught ecology at the University of Maputo.

        Through a series of tales, newspaper columns, poems, and novels, Mia Couto has written a masterful body of work that is simultaneously erudite and popular, funny and tragic, universal and rooted in his native Mozambique. From Sleepwalking Land (Serpent’s Tail, 2006), set against a background of civil war, to the trilogy Sands of the Emperor (World Editions, 2019-2020), not to mention Under the Frangipani (Serpent’s Tail, 2001), The Last Flight of the Flamingo (Serpent’s Tail, 2004), The Tuner of Silences (Biblioasis, 2013) and Confession of the Lioness (Vintage, 2015), the author mixes the orality, legends and beliefs of Africa with the violence that runs through the history of his country and the questioning of roots.

        Translated into over thirty languages, his texts have been awarded many prizes, including the 2013 Camões Prize and the 2014 Neustadt Prize for his work as a whole. Couto is now considered by critics and his peers to be one of the most important African writers and one of the most significant voices working in Portuguese.

Singled out today for the 2020 Jan Michalski Prize, Couto’s Sands of the Emperor was originally published as three separate books, which were brought together in a single volume for the French edition. This trilogy plunges us into the Mozambique of the late 19th century when the country was ravaged by wars of clans and colonists. The emperor Ngungunyane notably, the head of the kingdom of Gaza in the country’s south, long struggled against the ambitions of the Portuguese crown before meeting with defeat, deportation to Lisbon, where he was exhibited with his court like a war trophy, and finally exile to the Azores. Throughout the work’s three parts – in English translation The Woman of the Ashes, The Sword and the Spear and the forthcoming The Drinker of Horizons – Mia Couto narrates as much as he questions the above historical reality through the hybrid voice of two fictional characters, Imani Nsambe, a young Mozambican woman who has been educated by Portuguese missionaries, and the man for whom she must work as an interpreter and to whom she is tied by an impossible love, the soldier Germano de Melo. Sent away to Africa by the Portuguese monarchy because of his republican convictions, the latter pointedly keeps his distance through the hierarchy he insists on. Yet their experiences complement one another. While German strives to describe in his letters the conflicts playing out before his eyes and his struggles to integrate the values of colonialism, Imani bears the pain of being between several world and languages, with only her memory of African legends as her only ally. Her perfect mastery of the colonizers’ tongue relegates her to the margins of the Black community, while her roots set her apart from the settlers, a fate in which, despite being an interpreter and later captive spy, she is destined to build bridges between Portugal and Ngungunyane’s kingdom.

        Flamboyant and painful, Imani and Gemano’s saga is made up of a series of exiles, attempts to break down barriers and misunderstandings, doubts and acts of violence, concentrating all that the shock of colonization can generate, but with the particularity of being given a polyphonic telling. These characters with their multiple identities, these shattered souls offer us through their fragmented gaze a range of perspectives on history in order to better understand it.

        Sands of the Emperor then, both historical saga and enchanting tale, a powerful portrait of a woman, and a story of love and humanity, succeeds in bringing together face to face elsewhere and here. With an inventive idiom that is renewed by East African lands and watered by his singular poetry, Mia Couto questions beliefs, blends worlds, and blurs borders in a universal meditation on otherness.

Winner of the 2020 Jan Michalski Prize, Mia Couto will receive an award worth CHF 50,000 as well as a work of art specifically chosen for the recipient:
a pair of unique sculptures by the Nigerian artist Alimi Adewale, Untitled, 2019, Ekki wood, height 47 cm.