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Animals, Animism, and Biosemiotics: Reimagining the Species Boundary in the Novels of Mia Couto

  • Benjamin Klein

Abstract

Mia Couto is among the most prominent of contemporary Mozambican writers. Yet he has also enjoyed a career as an environmental biologist and ecologist, having expressed much interest in interrogating the border between what is human and not human through his scientific practice. In this essay I locate the nexus of Couto’s literary and ecological careers in his concern with recovering forms of proximity among humans, environments, and other species. Through an analysis of some of Couto’s recently translated novels, I argue that his work reconceives of the relations between humans and animals through the concept of biosemiotics, an approach attuned to languages conveyed semiotically through embodied and skillful engagement with the larger-than-human world. Couto’s work in turn grounds biosemiotics in segments of African life that find their basis in forms of animism, thus implicating the concept in the postcolonial work of cultural recuperation and decolonization.

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I wish to thank Professor Graham Huggan at the University of Leeds for our generative discussions and for motivating me to develop the ideas put forward in this article.

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1 Hatton, John et al., Biodiversity and War: A Case Study of Mozambique ( Washington, DC: Biodiversity Support Program, 2001).

2 Gracie Jin, “Q&A with Mia Couto, The Writer Who Just Won the ‘American Nobel Prize,’ ” Mic, November 4, 2013. Accessed June 9, 2018. https://mic.com/articles/71373/q-a-with-mia-couto-the-writer-who-just-won-the-american-nobel-prize#.TxVx1SK8W.

3 In relation to the same interview, Grant Hamilton and David Huddart have argued that Couto’s response “is the articulation of a poet-scientist,” for whom “science is just one path among many that can help us to understand the world better.” See Hamilton, Grant and Huddart, David, eds., “Introduction,” in A Companion to Mia Couto (Suffolk, England: James Currey, 2016), 45 .

4 By “speciesism,” I refer to oppositional and hierarchical framings of the relationship between humans and animals that result in systematic biases against other species. The term can be traced back to Peter Singer’s seminal work Animal Liberation (originally published in 1975).

5 Haraway, Donna, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

6 It should be stressed that although Couto’s work draws on indigenous themes, it would be more problematic to classify him as an indigenous writer considering his position as a White person of Portuguese descent. The complexities presented by this position remain largely unaccounted for in recent scholarship.

7 Hoffmeyer, Jesper, Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs, ed. Favareau, Donald, trans. Hoffmeyer, Jesper and Favareau, Donald (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 2008), 4 .

8 Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

9 Harding, Stephan, “Towards an Animistic Science of the Earth,” in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, ed. Harvey, Graham ( London, England: Routledge, 2014), 373 .

10 Wheeler, Wendy, The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture ( London, England: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006), 34 .

11 Wheeler, The Whole Creature, 98.

12 Wheeler, The Whole Creature, 48.

13 Wheeler, The Whole Creature, 47.

14 Wheeler, The Whole Creature, 47.

15 Wheeler, The Whole Creature, 49.

16 Soyinka, Wole, Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 53 .

17 Bird-David , Nurit, “ ‘Animism’ Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology,” Current Anthropology 40.S1 (1999): S6791 .

18 For examples of such colonial anthropology, see Edward Burnett Tylor’s Primitive Culture: Research into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (originally published in 1871), and James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (originally published in 1890).

19 Garuba, Harry, “Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society,” Public Culture 15.2 (2003): 265 ; italics in the original.

20 Garuba, “Explorations in Animist Materialism,” 267.

21 Harvey, Graham, ed., “Introduction,” in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism ( London, England: Routledge, 2014), 2 .

22 Garuba, “Explorations in Animist Materialism,” 275.

23 See Bill Ashcroft’s brief overview of the emergent body of Couto scholarship in “The Multiple Worlds of Mia Couto,” in A Companion to Mia Couto, eds. Grant Hamilton and David Huddart (Suffolk, England: James Currey, 2016), 106.

24 When asked by Hamilton and Huddart whether his work captures or reflects the idea of the exotic in a world literature frame, Couto responded: “The ‘Mozambican’ components of my narratives are not motivated by any desire for exotic display or appeal.” See Hamilton, Grant and Huddart, David eds., “An Interview with Mia Couto,” in A Companion to Mia Couto (Suffolk, England: James Currey, 2016), 14 .

25 Hamilton and Huddart, “Introduction,” 5.

26 Marques, Irene, “Spaces of Magic: Mia Couto’s Relational Practices,” in A Companion to Mia Couto, eds. Hamilton, Grant and Huddart, David (Suffolk, England: James Currey, 2016), 64 .

27 Marques, “Spaces of Magic.”

28 Jin, “Q&A with Mia Couto, The Writer Who Just Won the ‘American Nobel Prize.’ ”

29 Couto, Mia, A River Called Time, trans. by Brookshaw, David ( London, England: Serpent’s Tail, 2008), 40 .

30 Couto, A River Called Time, 153.

31 Couto, A River Called Time, 162–63.

32 Couto, A River Called Time, 163.

33 Couto, Mia, Confession of the Lioness, trans. Brookshaw, David ( London, England: Harvill Secker, 2015), 66 ; italics in the original.

34 Couto, Confession of the Lioness, 67–68.

35 Couto, Confession of the Lioness, 65.

36 Marques, “Spaces of Magic,” 64.

37 de Castro, Eduardo Viveiros, Cannibal Metaphysics: For a Post-Structural Anthropology, ed. and trans. Skafish, Peter (Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Publishing, 2014), 49 ; italics in the original.

38 Couto, Mia, The Last Flight of the Flamingo, trans. Brookshaw, David ( London, England: Serpent’s Tail, 2004), 26 ; italics in the original.

39 Helgesson, Stefan, “Mia Couto & Translation,” in A Companion to Mia Couto, eds. Hamilton, Grant and Huddart, David (Suffolk, England: James Currey, 2016), 140 .

40 Huddart, David, “ ‘Ask Life’: Animism & the Metaphysical Detective,” in A Companion to Mia Couto, eds. Hamilton, Grant and Huddart, David (Suffolk, England: James Currey, 2016), 125 .

41 de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics, 151.

42 Couto, The Last Flight of the Flamingo, 10; italics in the original.

43 Couto, The Last Flight of the Flamingo, 43.

44 Huggan, Graham and Tiffin, Helen, Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment, 2nd ed. ( London, England: Routledge, 2015), 152 .

45 See, for instance, Mies, Maria and Shiva, Vandana, Ecofeminism ( London, England: Zed Books, 2014), 178 . Mies and Shiva argue that racism, sexism, and speciesism were/are bound up with “the colonial expansion of Europe and the rise of modern science.”

46 Couto, Mia, Sleepwalking Land, trans. Brookshaw, David ( London, England: Serpent’s Tail, 2006), 211 .

47 Couto, Sleepwalking Land, 80.

48 Couto, The Last Flight of the Flamingo, 20.

49 Couto, The Last Flight of the Flamingo, 14.

50 Huggan and Tiffin, Postcolonial Ecocriticism, 156; I refer to Huggan and Tiffin’s definition of the “species boundary” as “the discursive construction of a strict dividing line between ‘human’ and ‘animal.’ ”

51 Couto, Confession of the Lioness, 60.

52 Couto, Confession of the Lioness, 181.

53 Couto, Confession of the Lioness, 40.

54 Wheeler, The Whole Creature, 96.

55 Wheeler, The Whole Creature, 99.

56 Wolfe, Cary, What Is Posthumanism?, Posthumanities (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xv .

57 Couto, A River Called Time, 71.

58 Couto, A River Called Time, 74.

59 Couto, A River Called Time, 74.

60 Couto, A River Called Time, 74.

61 Couto, A River Called Time, 49.

62 Couto, A River Called Time, 49.

63 Couto, Confession of the Lioness, 66–67; italics in the original.

64 Elias, Amy J. and Moraru, Christian, eds., “Introduction,” in The Planetary Turn: Relationality and Geoaesthetics in the Twenty-First Century (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015), xii , xxiv.

65 Hedley Twidle, “ ‘Confession of the Lioness,’ by Mia Couto,” 2015. Accessed June 10, 2018. https://www.ft.com/content/ebf26232-31f6-11e5-91ac-a5e17d9b4cff.

66 Green, Lesley, ed., “Contested Ecologies: Nature and Knowledge,” in Contested Ecologies: Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge (Cape Town, South Africa: HSRC Press, 2013), 2 .

I wish to thank Professor Graham Huggan at the University of Leeds for our generative discussions and for motivating me to develop the ideas put forward in this article.

Keywords

Animals, Animism, and Biosemiotics: Reimagining the Species Boundary in the Novels of Mia Couto

  • Benjamin Klein

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