This year’s Man Booker International Prize, announced last night, saw a series of firsts for the literary world. The novel that has won this year is Celestial Bodies, written by Omani novelist Jokha Alharthi and translated by American academic Marilyn Booth. Not only is Alharthi the first Omani novelist translated into English, her work is also the first Arabic book to have won the prestigious prize for a translated work. Another first is the fact that Alharthi happens to be the first Muslim woman to have bagged the title.
Earlier this year when the official shortlist was announced, it was evident that the winning book would be in for some serious competition. The shortlist was almost entirely dominated by independently published books and female writer-translator duos. Heavyweights such as last year’s winner Olga Tockarzuk, influential French author Annie Ernaux and Colombian powerhouse Juan Gabriel Vasquez were some of the heavyweights of the Man Booker International 2019 shortlist. Also among the nominees were prestigious titles like The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran and The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann. Triumphing over the others, Celestial Bodies won the £50,000 prize which will be shared equally between writer Alharthi and translator Booth.
According to Bettany Hughes, prominent historian and the chair of judges for the prize, Celestial Bodies “starts in a room and ends in a world.” The novel follows three sisters in the Omani village of al-Awafi. Mayya has married into an affluent family after a heartache, Asma’s marriage has stemmed from duty and Khawla is waiting for an Omani immigrant in Canada. Celestial is a novel of love and loss, yet it subverts every stereotype regarding social stratification, slavery, race and gender. Describing Alharthi’s prose style, Hughes speaks of the subtle artistry of the novel. “It’s less flamboyant than some of the other books, there’s a kind of poetic cunning to it.” Translator Marilyn Booth, in an interview after the longlist was announced, pointed out that Arabic fiction is often treated as a roadmap to the Arab world rather than art. Her translation has not only brought Omani literature to the attention of a wider audience, it has also established the fact that societies are very much alike in spite of their cultural and geographical distances. “…perhaps what one learns most is how alike they (works of literature) are in their dailiness, human exchange and emotions…” said Booth.
Published by Scotland based publishing house Sandstone Press, Celestial Bodies has been translated from Alharthi’s original Sayyidat al-Qamr. She is the author of two other novels, a children’s book and two collections of short stories. Educated at the University of Edinburgh, she is currently an associate professor of Arabic at Sultan Qaboos University, Oman. Jokha Alharthi has been translated into German, Korean, Serbian and Italian. “Omanis, through their writing, invite others to look at Oman with an open mind and heart,” said the author. She believes that Celestial Bodies will bring to the limelight Oman’s bustling literary scene.