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Celestial Bodies interview

Celestial Bodies interview

‘Omanis, through their writing, invite others to look at Oman with an open mind and heart.’  Author Jokha Alharthi explains what it’s like being the first Omani writer on the longlist & translator Marilyn Booth tells us why it’s an honour in this Man Booker International Prize interview:  

 

Jokha Alharthi, author of Celestial Bodies

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It feels like a wonderful opportunity to share my inner world with the whole world!

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted book Celestial Bodies?

Celestial Bodies offers a glimpse into the colourful life of an Arab Omani family, particularly three sisters growing up at a pivotal time in Omani history. I’ve aimed to depict lives that will resonate with many Omani youngsters while offering a relatable social image of the 21st century Oman, particularly for those less familiar with this part of the world.

You are the first Omani writer to be longlisted. What do you hope readers from around the world will learn about Oman? 

I hope this helps international readers discover that Oman has an active and talented writing community who live and work for their art. 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.

Omanis, through their writing, invite others to look at Oman with an open mind and heart. No matter where you are, love, loss, friendship, pain and hope are the same feelings and humanity still has a lot of work to do to believe in this truth.

 

Marilyn Booth, translator of Celestial Bodies 

What has it been like to be longlisted? 

It is a great honour and in addition to being happy for the author and for myself, I am happy for Sandstone, the small literary press in Scotland that took on this book even though they had not published any Arabic literature before. I am also delighted that this brings Omani literature to the attention of a wider audience. Finally, I appreciate very much that this prize recognises not only the power of the work in the language in which it was imagined and written, but also the importance of translation as creative writing and as responsibility, to readers and to the author of the original.

What did you most like about translating Celestial Bodies?

Jokha Alharthi brings stressful and beautiful family relationships to life within the complex political and social history of Oman. And so I appreciate the novel as a deeply affective historical novel that does not flinch from difficult aspects of a national history. But I think what I like most is the use of language, or languages: the distinct idioms or sociolects of differently placed characters, the vivid use of local expressions and usages, in particular the conversations amongst women. I like very much that Jokha does not write for readers who do not know Oman: she does not try to explain things. That’s a challenge for the translator, as one has to meet the reader partway, but hopefully readers of Arabic literature in translation are also willing to stretch themselves. And then there is the use of classical Arabic poetry, beautiful in the novel but an enormous challenge to the translator!

What can readers learn about contemporary Arab world from this book?

As in any place and time, generations have different outlooks on their own societies, and so generational struggle is a feature of this novel that will resonate for readers of all different backgrounds. Readers will learn also about Omani history but not in a straightforward way: I hope reading this novel motivates them to delve more into the fascinating history of that society. The novel imagines that history from ‘oblique’ perspectives that are most often not heard: perspectives of women and the enslaved or formerly enslaved (women and men). But I would like also to say that I think too often, Arabic fiction is thought of as a road-map to the Arab world rather than first and foremost as art, as imaginative writing, pushing the boundaries of what can be thought and said. And so, the Man Booker International Prize’s recognition of literary excellence is truly important, for so many reasons. What one really learns here ‘about the Arab world’ is that there are amazing fictionalists (as well as poets and writers of creative nonfiction) throughout the region, not only in the better-known hubs of literary creation such as Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Morocco and many other places, but in a country that is less literarily mapped, like Oman. And perhaps what one learns most is how alike they are in their dailiness, human exchange and emotions, and how societies that might appear so different are really so very much alike.