Woman of the Ashes
By: Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw)
254 pages (Don’t be fooled, this one might take awhile)
Published April 10, 2018
Mozambique, 1984. Sergeant Germano de Melo is posted to the village of Nkokolani to oversee the Portuguese conquest of territory claimed by Ngungunyane, the last emperor of the State of Gaza. Ngungunyane has raised an army to resist colonial rule and with his warriors is slowly approaching the border village. Desperate for help, Germano enlists Imani, a fifteen-year-old girl, to act as his interpreter. She belongs to the VaChopi tribe, one of the few who dared side with the Portuguese. But while one of her brothers fights for the Portuguese Crown, the other has chosen the African emperor. Standing astride two kingdoms, Imani is drawn to Germano, just as he is drawn to her. But she knows that in a country haunted by violence, the only way out for a woman is to go unnoticed, as if made of shadows or ashes.
Alternating between the voices of Imani and Germano, Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes combines vivid folkloric prose with extensive historical research to give a spellbinding and unsettling account of war-torn Mozambique at the end of the nineteenth century.
Woman of the Ashes was a difficult read for me. I don’t read many historical fiction books, especially ones that are translations from languages I do not speak. However, I was drawn to the book by a curiosity I could not name–maybe it was the title, maybe the cover art, maybe the promise of getting lost in a book that was unchartered territory for me. There were times when I wanted to give up and stop reading, but I felt compelled to keep reading.
This book had a steep learning curve. If you’re like me and all you know about Mozambique is that it is in southern Africa, you will struggle just as I did. There were names I did not know, histories I was unaware of, and I have to admit that I had to do some research of my own to get a better understanding of what was going on.
Even with the English translation, I felt like I was missing vital pieces of Couto’s folklore. In some ways, I felt like this did a disservice to the original work. I felt like I was trespassing or reading something that maybe my eyes were never meant to see.
“The whites use their term ‘bury.’ We talk of ‘sowing the dead.’ Forever sons and daughters of the soil, we give the dead what the earth gives the seeds: sleep leading to rebirth.” (212)
Despite all of this, I feel that Woman of the Ashes is an important read. It documents the devastating effects of war and the way it tears apart families, races, and compatriots. Couto uses fiction and storytelling to highlight the impacts of Portuguese imperialism in a country he calls home today. While this story takes place in late nineteenth-century Africa, there are parts of this story that remain resonant today, and not just in Africa. I see the invasion, assimilation, and upheaval of the VaChopi reflected in the Syrian Refugee Crisis, conflicts in the Middle East, and the gentrification of low-income minority neighborhoods in the United States. In this way, one might be able to understand and relate to Imani’s struggles and Germano’s hopelessness.
“When Dona Bianca travels on a river, she sees time. In the swirl of the current, she contemplates that which never returns. But for us, time is a drop of water: it is born in the clouds, enters the river and the oceans, and falls again the next time it rains. A river’s estuary is the sea’s source.” (253)
Favorite Narrator Germano. I know this may seem surprising, but I found the development of his character–as exposed through his narrated letters–to be profound. I was quick to sign him off as an evil white imperialist, but then I slowly found myself sympathizing with him. In his own way, Germano is a prisoner of imperialist Portugal. It is revealed through his letters that he is sent to guard the VaChopi from Ngungunyane’s army as punishment for participating in the Republican revolt in Portugal. He is given no army, no munitions, and no support. His letters to the President de Almeida of Portugal go unanswered. He realizes he was sent to Mozambique to die.
Extra Thoughts This is the first book in what Couto is writing as a trilogy. The ending reflected that. If you are looking for a nice, neat ending you won’t get that here. You’ll have to keep reading. I’m not sure I will.