Jokha Alharthi, the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prestigious 2019 Man Booker International Prize and the first Omani woman to be translated into English, took the podium on the second day of the Sharjah International Book Fair 2019 to discuss Celestial Bodies, the novel that won her the coveted honour.
Speaking at a packed hall at Expo Centre Sharjah, the author said that although she had published her first book while in Oman, the starting point for Celestial Bodies came out of her longing for her home country while she was in Edinburgh, Scotland, pursuing a PhD in classical Arabic poetry.
A multi-generational saga that tells the story of three generations of a family from a village called al-Awafi, and deeply rooted in the historical narrative of Oman, the family histories presented in Celestial Bodies is indicative of the social and economic changes and the consequent shifts in outlook that have transformed Oman in so short a time. “Even though we assume that we have only adapted externally, the truth is we have changed on the inside too,” said Alharthi, who explored the lives and complex relationships of three sisters against the backdrop of a changing society.
Her third novel, Narinjah (Bitter Orange), released in 2016 too dealt with history, society and relationships where the protagonist belonging to an older generation “is not the typical weak-willed, yielding to the patriarchal system type of woman,” she explained. “I believe that there are strong women too who despite the sacrifices and struggles or lack of education can still defy conventions or maintain their independence of spirit.”
Although her stories strongly feature women and families, “what I ultimately write about is the human condition,” says the author. “The characters in my novels experience feelings of love, loss, pain, and hope – these are not exclusive to any one society or culture. These are universal values that anyone from any part of the world can relate to, and this is what binds us all together in the spirit of humanity despite our cultural or language differences.”
Celestial Bodies was translated into English by Marilyn Booth, her University of Edinburgh professor, and was published in 2018 which went on to win the prestigious Man Booker the following year. “The translation has enabled the novel to be read and appreciated by a wider audience, and I am grateful for that,” she said. “It was the English translation that generated a huge interest in my work, and now, it has been signed up for translation into 15 languages including Chinese, Sinhalese and languages of the East.”