Jokha Alharthi, Man Booker International Prize 2019 winner, on Arabic literature: 'Diverse, beautiful, deserves to be read'
In 2019, Jokha Alharthi became the first Arab woman to win the Booker International Prize for her novel Celestial Bodies. Alharthi was recently in India to attend the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2020, where she spoke about her book and how some people weren’t too happy with her portrayal of Omani society.
In 2019, Jokha Alharthi became the first Arab woman to win the Booker International Prize for her novel Celestial Bodies.
She was also the first female Omani author ever to have a novel translated into English
Alharthi was recently in India to attend the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2020, where she spoke about her book and how some people weren’t too happy with her portrayal of Omani society.
The year 2019 was one of many firsts for Jokha Alharthi.
It was the year 41-year-old Alharthi became the first Arab woman to win the Booker International Prize for her novel Celestial Bodies. She was also the first female Omani author ever to have a novel translated into English; she shared the prize with her translator Marilyn Booth.
Celestial Bodies is set in an Omani village and follows the lives of three sisters: There’s Mayya, who marries into a rich family after she has her heart broken; Asma, who marries for duty; and Khawla, who is waiting for a man who emigrated from Oman. The novel is a glimpse into Omani society through the voices of marginalised men and women, political upheaval, social turmoil, and slavery. It is a multi-generational saga that talks about how Oman changed from a rural society where slavery was practiced to an urban, rich Gulf state.
The book was originally published as Sayyidat al-Qamar in 2010, following her 2004 debut, Manamat (Dreams). In 2016, Alharthi published Narinjah (Bitter Orange), which is in the process of being translated into English.
The assistant professor at the College of Arts and Social Sciences in Muscat’s Sultan Qaboos University was recently in India to attend the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2020, where she spoke about her book and how some people weren’t too happy with her portrayal of Omani society.
Excerpts from an interview:
You don’t believe that fiction provides a mirror to society… Do you believe fiction is important today?
Of course fiction is important today. And also fiction teaches us, not in a direct way but in an indirect way. It's not a mirror towards reality, because it has this imaginative element in it. But it is influenced by reality, by people's lives and people’s thinking. It is just that we cannot bring things from reality as it is and put it directly in a novel. We have to work on making it readable, and you have to have the skills to do the framework, and sculpt a story and to imagine relations between people, etc.
You have written two children’s books, and have been nominated for a Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the ‘Young Authors’ category in 2012. What attracts you to children’s literature?
I wrote for children because when I had mine, I told them many stories and then I ran out of stories! So I invented stories and my children actually liked them. I though why not write [children’s] books? I’m proud of my children’s books. I find it difficult to continue because publishers want a certain kind of writing. Basically, I can write but I face difficulties in finding a publisher for my children’s books.
Is that the only difficulty you have faced in the publishing world? What is it like being a woman writer?
As a woman writer, at some point I have had to face the male domination in the literary scene. In general, I was lucky — unlike many writers whose families didn’t support them, my family actually supported me. I know that is not the case for other women writers; many of them have had to fight for this right.
The Narinjah (Bitter Orange) translation is set to hit the stands in 2021. How important are translations today?
Translation is very important in breaking stereotypes about culture especially for our world or the Islamic world, which is full of them. It’s important to tell people that things are not as they imagined. It’s not just a zone of war, but also produces a lot of literature, and it has a lot of culture.
What are you hoping to tell people about Arabic literature and fiction, through your work?
I’m hoping to tell people that Arabic literature is a very rich one. It goes back more than 1,700 years. It deserves to be read and admired. And it has a lot of diversity because although it’s for contemporary Arabic fiction, and is written in Arabic, it's written in, and is coming out of 22 different countries. It has a lot of diversity, it’s beautiful and it definitely deserves to be read.
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