By Francesca Negro, Universidade de Lisboa 

The Camões Prize is the most important award for Portuguese literature, and Paulina Chiziane is the first African woman to receive it.

Paulina Chiziane, the first woman to publish a novel in Mozambique, has become the first African woman to receive the most important award for Portuguese literature, the Camões Prize. She’s also the first to break all the rules about what a writer may reveal about Mozambique’s patriarchal culture and social taboos. 

Born in Manjacaze in 1955 and raised in the capital, Maputo, Chiziane’s mother tongue is Chopi, a Bantu language spoken along the southern coast of Mozambique, which she practised along with Portuguese, the language imposed during the colonial period. Today Chiziane has a degree in linguistics and is a leading global figure in Portuguese literature.

Speaking in a TV interview from the yard of her house in Zambezia province about winning the 2021 Camões Prize, she said

This prize is for all the people of my country, because I always wrote from a collective experience, transmitting a collective voice … even if my novels are written in the first person.

She finally received the award in person at a ceremony in Lisbon in May 2023 – the annual event had been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. Named after the famed 16th century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões, the Camões Prize was first awarded in 1988 to recognise great literature in Portuguese. In her speech in Lisbon, Chiziane said:

I was walking without knowing my direction, and yet I arrived somewhere. I come from Africa. I am black, and I am here, being the first black woman to receive this high recognition … I am black. Yes, and so what? If you want to be someone in life, in this world, you need to affirm your space. Leave traces of your feet on the ground, indelibly engraved, for other people to say: here someone has passed.

As a scholar of comparative literature who has researched African writing in Portuguese, I have followed Chiziane’s career and wish to shed some light on the work of this important writer and activist. Her groundbreaking novels and short stories have not all been translated into English and French, limiting her recognition in Africa.

Her protagonists

Chiziane’s first novel Balada de Amor ao Vento (Ballad of Love in the Wind) (1990) is a powerful story about a rural woman trapped in a patriarchal system. It anticipates her most famous novel, the 2002 Niketche: A Story of Polygamy, awarded the José Craveirinha Prize. Set in the south of Mozambique, it exposes the trials that Niketche must endure in a polygamous household.

Chiziane’s protagonists are characterised by a profound loneliness and sadness. They are victims of the painful subjugation of women that is still normalised – and seldom publicly discussed – in some regions of the country. She writes in absolute terms, revealing the good and the bad in society, and the emotions she evokes are extreme. And yet these women face their burdens and bear them bravely, discreetly and with dignity.

A life in service

Chiziane’s stories often reflect the social instability of a country oppressed by a war of liberation that was followed by civil conflicts after independence from Portugal in 1975. They reflect her commitment to the Frelimoliberation movement.

During the civil war of 1977 to 1992, she joined the Red Cross humanitarian organisation as a volunteer. This allowed her to observe the suffering of her people up close. Some of the most painful memories of that period converged in her second novel, the 1993 romance Ventos do Apocalipse(Winds of the Apocalypse). 

As a volunteer, she encountered a woman who at first confused her with her dead daughter, establishing a profound bond with her. The painful memory of that mother inspired her to write the book:

The two original names of the mother and the daughter, Minosse and Wusheni, are maintained in the novel as homage to that woman that has shaken my soul forever. I wish I could sit at her side now and tell her: of your tears I did this.

Chiziane went on to join the Nucleus of Feminine Association of Zambezia or Nafeza, a non-governmental organisation created in 1997. She was now fighting oppression through her literary works, as well as through political actions.

This article first appeared here.