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Jokha Alharthi: The power of a good story

  • The first Omani woman and Arabic writer to win the Man Booker International Prize, Jokha Alharthi makes a strong case for art and artistry
  • Her novel ‘Celestial Bodies’ tells the story of three sisters of a family with detours into Omani society and history

Jokha Alharthi after winning the prize.afp

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In an interview published on the Man Booker International Prize website, shortly after she was longlisted for the prestigious award this year, Omani writer Jokha Alharthi beautifully dodged a question about what readers may hope to learn about Oman from her novel, Celestial Bodies.

“I hope (it) helps international readers discover that Oman has an active and talented writing community who live and work for their art,” she said. “They take on sacrifices and struggles and find joy in writing, or in art, much the same way as anywhere else. This is something the whole world has in common.”

On 21 May, as Alharthi and her translator Marilyn Booth were jointly awarded the Man Booker International Prize 2019 for Celestial Bodies, her words rang out over the hullabaloo about her win over five other contenders: France’s Annie Ernaux, Germany’s Marion Poschmann, Colombia’s Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Chile’s Alia Trabucco Zeran and Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, who won the prize last year for her novel Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft).

As the first Omani woman and Arab writer to co-win the £50,000 (around 44 lakh) prize, which has only been given to a book in translation since 2016, Alharthi has, understandably, created a surge of interest. But this 41-year-old assistant professor at the College of Arts and Social Sciences in Muscat’s Sultan Qaboos University is reluctant to be pigeonholed.

Her novel, set around the lives of three sisters, speaks of predicaments that are felt universally. It bristles with love, loss, heartbreak, resilience—emotions that have been grist to the mill of fiction since the time people started telling and writing stories.

The storyline of Celestial Bodies is dotted with perspectives from characters who are considered marginal in Omani society. There are voices of women and of men who are enslaved, and those who were formerly enslaved—slavery was abolished in Oman as late as 1970. There are references to political upheavals and social turmoil. But notwithstanding its rich investment in Omani culture and society, the novel isn’t a guide to decoding the norms of a nation. “She does not try to explain things,” Booth pointed out in her interview on the Man Booker International Prize website. “Jokha does not write for readers who do not know Oman.”

While that may be a hurdle for readers not familiar with the country and its history, it isn’t necessarily an insurmountable problem. The few reviews of the novel that have appeared so far in English have bemoaned the book’s refusal to provide glosses as being inimical to its fuller appreciation. And yet, for centuries, people in post-colonial societies have read, and learnt to admire, literature from the nations of the West, coming out of cultures and societies they may not be conversant with, with a little bit of effort. A similar engagement on the part of their former colonizers should only be par for the course.

The clues to reading Celestial Bodies, which is partly a family saga, may be, to an extent, embedded in social codes. But the emotions evoked by such works often relate to the lived realities of readers from very contrasting backgrounds. When it comes to reading, the appeal of the story often tends to supersede sociology. Leo Tolstoy’s words, from the opening of Anna Karenina, for instance, hark to the universal appeal of certain situations: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Alharthi, who has a PhD in classical Arabic literature from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, also privileges the power of imaginative writing over providing a “road map to the Arab world”, as Booth explained. Alharthi’s view on writing, which will hopefully be known widely and in greater detail in the Anglophone world over the coming days, seems to be summed up by a quote from Virginia Woolf, pasted on the home page of her website: “But there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” A more direct and profound access to a writer’s thoughts would be harder to find.

In the last few years, the Man Booker International Prize has opened new doors to literature in translation. From The Vegetarian by Korean writer Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith, which won the prize in 2016), to A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman (winner of the 2017 prize and translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen), the prize has brought authors of extraordinary talent, diversity and sophistication to the notice of the Anglophone world. In doing so, it has acted as a literary leveller, emphasizing what should have long been obvious: that great fiction stands or falls on its aesthetic merit rather than on the message it conveys.

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