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World Editions author Mia Couto wins prestigious 2020 Jan Michalski Prize for Literature


One of the world’s most generous international literary prizes, 50,000 Swiss francs (£41,400) recognizes world literature

Mia Couto has been awarded the 2020 Jan Michalski Prize for literature for his trilogy As areias do imperador (Editorial Caminho, 2015-2017), translated into English by David Brookshaw and published by World Editions. The trilogy, set in 19th century Mozambique, includes three novels: Woman of the Ashes (World Editions, 2019), The Sword and the Spear (World Editions, 2020), and The Drinker of Horizons, (publication date to be confirmed).  In the US, Couto’s works are published by FSG.

The Jan Michalski Prize for Literature is awarded each year by the Foundation to crown a work of world literature. Previous winners have included Zeruya Shalev, Olga Tokarczuk, and Julia Lovell.

This year, the shortlist included East West Street by Philippe Sands (W&N, 2016) and Oreo by Fran Ross (NEUP, 1974).

Couto’s trilogy is set in late 19th-century Mozambique, during the last days of the so-called Gaza Empire under the emperor Ngungunyane. As the country is ravaged by wars of clans and colonists, the book centres around the relationship between two characters – Imani Nsambe, a young VaChopi girl who has learned Portuguese at a mission school, 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.

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.”

Online ceremony, 9 December, 8 am GMT

The Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing and Literature will award the prize online this year, with an event and various guest speakers. You can follow the event in real time at www.fondation-janmichalski.com.

Notes for editors

About Mia Couto

MIA COUTO, born in Beira, Mozambique, in 1955, is among the most prominent writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa. Besides writing, he is a biologist and teaches at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo. Mia Couto has been awarded several important literary prizes, among them the Camões Prize 2013 and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2014. He was a recent finalist for the Man Booker International Prize and his most recent book, Woman of the Ashes has been longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. His work has been translated into 24 languages.


The Jan Michalski Prize for Literature is awarded each year by the Foundation to crown a work of world literature. An original feature of the Prize is its multicultural nature. It is open to authors from all over the world and is intended to contribute to their international recognition. The Prize is awarded for a work of fiction or non-fiction, irrespective of the language in which it is written. To form the prize jury, the Foundation has invited a range of exceptional writers who are multilingual, selected for their knowledge of various literary genres. This year’s jury consists of Vera Michalski-Hoffmann (President), Julien Berjeaut, Benoît Duteurtre, Alicia Giménez Bartlett, Siri Hustvedt, Carsten Jensen, Andrey Kurkov, and Tomasz Różycki. The laureate receives 50,000 Swiss francs as well as a work of art especially chosen for the winner.