Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 June 2019

Celestial Bodies: The inspiration behind Omani author Jokha Alharthi's Man Booker-winning novel

The writer hopes ‘Celestial Bodies’ will not be the last Omani novel to be translated into English

Jokha Alharthi and translator Marilyn Booth won the Man Booker International Prize for Celestial Bodies. Man Booker Prize
Jokha Alharthi and translator Marilyn Booth won the Man Booker International Prize for Celestial Bodies. Man Booker Prize

Jokha Alharthi is a woman of many firsts. On May 21, she became the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, and she was the first Omani author ever to have her novel, Celestial Bodies, translated from Arabic into English.

So how did Alharthi arrive at this groundbreaking position? Through a simple longing for home.

Rewind about 10 years ago. Alharthi was in Edinburgh, working on her doctorate in classical Arabic poetry. She also had an idea for a novel that explored the lives and relationships of three sisters in a changing Oman could be explored.

“The plots and characters were partially in my mind,” she says. “But the actual starting point for Celestial Bodies was that I was feeling a little homesick. So I indulged in writing about these people back in Oman.”

What winning the Man Booker Prize means for Alharthi

Alharthi could not have predicted at the time that the book she wrote would win the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, not least because the award did not exist in its current format, with a book in English translation now awarded the £50,000 (Dh237,160) prize every year.

Alharthi was up against five other authors who wrote novels in French, Spanish, German and Polish.

Winning the prize will be life-changing for the Omani author, and not simply because of the cash prize she will share with translator Marilyn Booth.

Polish author Olga Tokarczuk won last year (she is shortlisted again this year for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead) and sales of her book, Flights, increased by 692 per cent.

I am happy that people will read Celestial Bodies but I also hope readers will wish to read other Arabic literature, and other authors from the Gulf. It’s definitely an opportunity for Omani literature to be read and appreciated by a wider audience.

Jokha Alharthi

Alharthi's triumph this year, could also lead to a rise in the popularity of Arabic and Gulf literature.

“I am happy that people will read Celestial Bodies but I also hope readers will wish to read other Arabic literature, and other authors from the Gulf,” she says.

“It’s definitely an opportunity for Omani literature to be read and appreciated by a wider audience."

The first steps towards making Celestial Bodies more widely known were taken when independent Scottish publisher Sandstone Press took on the English translation a few years ago. Booth took on the project after receiving a translation grant from the Anglo Omani Society.

“We are incredibly proud of our part in bringing this talented novelist to the attention of Europe and the world,” says Sandstone’s managing director, Robert Davidson. “This is a fine novel that makes real a history and a people and their possible futures.”

Alharthi says it feels strange to be talking once more about a novel she wrote so long ago.

“Every writer changes over time, so I could not have written it in exactly the same way today,” she says. “But I remain proud of the novel and its new international life.”

Telling Oman's history through her novel

It’s tempting to consider how the three sisters in Celestial Bodies, Mayya, Asthma and Khawla, might be faring in 2019.

“That’s a wonderful thought,” Alharthi says. “I hope the three sisters are happy now, but I would have to give this much more thought.

"In the novel, they all fare very differently in love and demonstrate an independence of spirit, complexity and strength, which I believe is true of women in Oman now.”

The family histories explained in Celestial Bodies can be treated as an explanation of how Oman has changed. Book-lovers in the West who might be tempted to open the novel after seeing it win the Man Booker International Prize might not have been aware that slavery was only abolished in Oman in 1970.

“In Oman, at least, some readers were pleased that a taboo subject such as slavery was explored in the novel,” Alharthi says. “But other readers would have preferred me not to write about it, because by writing about it the subject is acknowledged, and one has to face history.

"It is very important to me to try to give voice to as many experiences as possible in my writing, and it’s why fiction can be so important, because it allows readers to experience history through a good story.

“Sometimes history is making itself felt in the novel through alliances; Abdallah is the son of a successful merchant and, theoretically at least, a good prospective husband for Mayya.

"But Abdallah is raised by Zarifa, who is a freed slave who remains in the merchant’s house and behaves as a free woman. These connections need not be overtly made by the reader, or immediately made, but the weight of history in the present is very important throughout the book.”

What if the story took place in 2019?

Abdallah is a fascinating character in Celestial Bodies. He is the only first-person narrator in the book and, as Alharthi says, he is also a sad voice in the story.

He shifts between the memories of his past and changes that take place in the present, sometimes in the space of a paragraph, which makes for an intriguing and densely structured novel.

“One moment he is a boy being punished by being suspended from palm rope in a well, the next his daughter is asking him to buy her a BMW,” Alharthi says. “The pace of change in Oman is starkly presented through him.”

When Abdallah tries to be a modern man and talk about love and feelings, he is mocked for using “TV show words”.

As much as Celestial Bodies stridently offers compelling female characters, there is also some sympathy for the lot of a 21st century man in Oman.

Sometimes it is hard to escape a past or make a new start, even when love holds out the possibility of a new future.

Jokha Alharthi

“Sometimes it is hard to escape a past or make a new start, even when love holds out the possibility of a new future,” Alharthi says.

“Abdallah is mocked for expressing his feelings. Feelings are not pragmatic, after all. Love is hard-won in the novel, unless love chooses you.

"Qamar, for example, is an undaunted female character who decides who she will love. But others will be unhappy in love, or will not necessarily find love.”

This brings us right back to how these vivid characters might be faring had the story taken place in 2019. A sequel is not on the cards, although Alharthi jokes that she makes it “a rule not to discuss new work until it is finished”.

But Celestial Bodies is such a compelling novel that these characters live on beyond the final pages of the book.

For now, Alharthi says she hopes that her newfound profile as a writer might mean that her 2016 novel, Bitter Orange, is fully translated into English. An excerpt, also translated by Booth, is already available to read online at Words Without Borders.

The story also heavily features Oman, which is important for Alharthi’s publishers who believe she is the first Omani author to have her work translated into English.

“Literature is the best expression of experience,” she says.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi is out now

Updated: May 22, 2019 11:39 AM

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