African voices and magical tales

The two might be from the same continent – Africa – but their tales couldn’t be more different. In their respective books, Woman of the Ashes and She Would be King, Couto and Wayétu delve into the untold stories of the people of Mozambique and Liberia.      

Couto’s book looks at how certain periods are air-brushed out of history. “We forgot about slavery; we forgot about the colonial war,” he said of Mozambique. Moore’s book, similarly, was borne from a conversation about the history of her country, Liberia.

Their shared impetus is to seek out their national truths through the microscope of the everyday. They grapple with the bigger picture by depicting small, domestic tableaux of ordinary people and how they live their lives. Despite the realism of their narratives, they're also stories peppered with magic. From ghosts and phantoms to fish falling from the sky, they weave the ordinary with cinematic fantasy. “I do think truth is definitely the intention,” said Moore.

Couto said his narrative is shaped by its protagonists. “I’m in love with some characters,” he said. “I ask permission from them to tell the story.” Moore’s characters were shaped, she said, by the tales her Liberian parents told her as she grew up in America.

In telling these stories, Couto and Moore give voice to the people whom the history books forgot. Their novels consider the plurality and nuance of voice that exists within the vast African continent. “We are the messengers,” said Couto.

If you are interested in more talks like this see Event HD23 at 2.30pm on Monday 27 May. If you like watching Hay Festival events digitally please sign up to the Hay Player for more from the world’s greatest thinkers.

Left to right: Mia Couto, Wayétu Moore, Daniel Hahn.

Picture by Sam Hardwick