Woman of the Ashes
A vivid and enchanting African novel
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Gaza province of Mozambique is drowning in a torrent of war. Imani, a fifteen-year-old girl, struggles with her cultural identity as she is torn between her VaChopi roots and the occupying Portuguese. Her life becomes further fractured as her family is broken apart amid the conflict. Germano, a sergeant wrestling with guilt and grandeur, attempts to subdue one of the last African kingdoms, but meanwhile falls in love with Imani and loses himself to an infectious madness. In this vivid and enchanting novel, Mia Couto masterfully interweaves history with folklore and has managed to create a work of rare originality and imagination.
Mia Couto, born in Beira, Mozambique, in 1955, is one of the most prominent writers… Read more
Book Club Questions
- This book is set in Mozambique in 1894. How does Mia Couto convey the sense of place? How does it differ from the present day? And in what ways do things remain the same?
- Can you explain the significance of the title? What could the ‘ashes’ be referring to?
- What is the significance of the section devoted to Imani’s changing names near the beginning of the novel?
- The story is told from alternating perspectives? What do you think about this as a narrative technique? How does the language change between the chapters of Imani and those of the Sergeant, Germano de Melo?
- How does the Sergeant’s language change over the course of the novel?
- Imani is caught between two cultural worlds: that of the Portuguese invaders and that of her native VaChopi. She speaks both languages. How, if at all, do you think language affects culture and power structures?
- Local folklore features strongly in Imani’s world. Do you think folklore has, or should have, an important part to play in society today? If so, how? Do you think in losing it that certain wisdom will be lost, or do you believe it is simply superstition and is largely irrelevant today given all the new knowledge that we have?
- Can you remember any of the folklore from the novel? Did any of it stay with you and make you think about something in a way you maybe hadn’t before? What pieces of folklore, if any, do you remember from your own childhood and what messages were they trying to convey?
- How do Imani’s brothers differ from each other, and from Imani? How do their political views, if at all, cause conflicts within the family unit?
- Imani’s father tells Imani: “You’ve got to be for him [De Melo] what all women are in this world.” What does he mean by this? Why does he give her such advice, and do you think he is right?
- Can you describe the different situations of De Melo and Imani, in terms of their race and gender?
- Why is attraction present between Imani and De Melo? And is it reciprocated?
- Both Imani and De Melo are in a sense displaced. Can you describe in what ways? And can you compare this to people who might be in a similar situation in the present day?
- Cultural longevity is a theme in this novel: what is the risk of losing cultural differences? Can you think of any cultures that are at risk of being lost today? What can we do to prevent this?
- How do mortality and death feature in the novel? Does the VaChopi approach to death differ from your own view, or the view within your own community? If so, how?
‘From the myths that swirled around Ngungunyane (and still do), Couto conjures what he has described as the “many and small stories” out of which history is made, offering a profound meditation on war, the fragility of empire, and the ways in which language shapes us.’ —New York Times
‘Woman of the Ashes is a beautiful and grotesque force interweaving history with myth. Couto’s prose carries the weight of a creation story in nearly every passage.’ —World Literature Today
‘In their exploration of myth, dreams, power, and fear, Couto’s books draw from the tradition of storytelling across Africa. In the use he makes of stories—about dreams and superstitions, spiders and stones that talk—Couto has created a work of rare originality and imagination. Read it and remember.’ —The Economist
‘Mia Couto has combined brilliant folkloric prose with extensive historical research to write a novel on the colonial history of Mozambique at the end of the nineteenth century. Woman of the Ashes exposes the nature and impact of colonial power in Mozambique. It is one of the best historical novels published in 2018. You will learn more from Woman of the Ashes than from several scholarly books on Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique.’ —Washington Book Review
‘In this excellent book, Couto feathers history with folklore; while readers with some knowledge of Mozambican history will get the most out of the novel, this is still a fascinating, intricating story.’ —Publishers Weekly
‘A rich historical tale thick with allegory and imagery that recalls Márquez and Achebe’ —Kirkus Reviews
‘Couto’s mastery lies in his ability to turn his exploration of this slice of history into a commentary on all of human civilization. Richly translated by Brookshaw in words that suggest more than they say, Couto’s tale evokes a sense of timelessness, especially in the world seen through Imani’s eyes. An intriguing combination of folklore, history, and magic realism, and the first in a trilogy, this is a novel to be read and reread, savored and analyzed.’ —Booklist Online
‘While Couto treats his characters to a world of blazing specificity, Imani—in Woman of the Ashes—is also a vessel for our more contemporary battles.’ —Vanity Fair
‘With its blend of history and mythology, Woman of the Ashes proves an original, occasionally perplexing but always intriguing work of fiction.’
‘In Woman of the Ashes, Mia Couto has given us a work that is epic in scale yet maintains a humane focus on the individual tragedies of those caught up in the sweep of history.’
‘With riveting prose and thorough research, Couto paints the village as a doomed magical space where blind people can see and sighted people are blind, where dreams about the dead guide the living, where fish fall from the sky and the earth spits up weapons. There is not one dull moment. Although sometimes too enmeshed in fables, this is also where the novel’s strength lies: in completely enchanting us.’
‘An exquisite, multi-layered novel.’
The Literary Supplement
Why You Should Read This Book
‘Woman of the Ashes is more than a historical tale of the last big emperor of Southern Africa. It is also a saga that suggests how history is made of stories: the written version of the past—which belongs to the winners—hides different voices and different versions of that same past and of the lives of the defeated.’
MIA COUTO, the author
‘One of the most fascinating challenges translating Couto is to catch his uniquely poetic use of language, including neologisms and word plays. The particular challenge in translating this novel was to reproduce in English the rather bookish, formal, and occasionally pompous language of the Portuguese officer, Germano de Melo, and the more spontaneous, candid, poetic language of Imani, the VaChopi girl who straddles two cultural worlds: that of the ancestral language which is her mother tongue, and that of the language of the colonizer, in which she has been educated.’
DAVID BROOKSHAW, the translator
‘I have been an admirer of Couto’s work since I read his first novel Sleepwalking Land after visiting the Harare Book Fair in Zimbabwe, where it was selected as one of the best African books of the 20th century. I fell in love with the poetic style and the dreamlike descriptions of war-torn Mozambique. Couto’s language is enchanting―he creates worlds in which magic and history go hand in hand. I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to publish such a great author.’
JUDITH UYTERLINDE, the publisher