I want Omani writers to know that there is always hope for us, says Jokha Al Harthi
May 22, 2019 | 1:04 PM
by Times News Service

Muscat: Omani author Jokha Al Harthi has made history, and won hearts, as the first Arabic writer to win a prestigious global literary award.

Her book, Celestial Bodies, has won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, announced at a ceremony at the Roundhouse performance venue in London on Tuesday evening.

It’s the first time an Arabic author has won the prize, and also the first time an Arabic language book has been selected.

Speaking exclusively to Times of Oman, Jokha revealed the trials and tribulations behind writing the book, far away from home, and how she wrote to remind herself of home.

Jokha Al Harthi with the Man Booker Prize.

Booksellers across Oman are now scrabbling to order and stock Celestial Bodies, as all the copies they had have been snapped up.

“That part is wonderful, seeing Omani readers come to ask for my book,” said Jokha, speaking from Edinburgh.

“As an Omani writer, I felt like my start should always be in my country. It’s wonderful, of course, that worldwide sales are increasing and that my agent is telling me about translation offers in other languages, but I am an Omani. Seeing people in my country wanting to read books set in their country is amazing. This is a point of pride for any writer.”

She added: “I’m the first Arab person who won this prize, and this book is the first Arabic book to have it, so I feel extremely proud. I feel like this is a step in opening the path for more Arabic literature to go on to the world stage.”

And she had a message for all other writers in the Sultanate. “I want Omani writers to know that there is always hope for us. Celestial Bodies winning this prize means that there is hope for Arabic writing in general and Omani writing especially.”

Celestial Bodies was selected as the winner from more than 108 books placed before a panel of international judges.

Jokha revealed the challenges she faced in writing the book, as well as the triumph she feels now.

“I clearly remember starting this book and it being a very difficult point in my life,” she recalled. “I was living in a country that wasn’t my own as a PhD student in Edinburgh.”

“My daughter was a baby then, and I was feeling lonely, and we could not find a stable apartment but instead moved from apartment to apartment, and I remember deciding that I needed to be in my country, which was so far away, to write this book in Arabic.

“I feel a huge amount of responsibility along with the joy. I’ve always been a person who writes carefully, and this will make it even more so.”

Jokha Al Harthi's book Celestial Bodies. Photo: Jokha Al Harthi/Facebook

Judges had initially made a longlist of 13 books from the 108 submissions, and this list was then shortened to just six. The award ceremony was held in Edinburgh on Tuesday night, with Jokha also winning OMR25,000 in prize money. She will split this money equally with her American translator Marilyn Booth.

PM Shoukath Ali, Managing Director of Al Bhaj Bookstores, told Times of Oman, “We do not have the book currently, but we have already contacted our UK book suppliers for copies. Our first order will take more than two weeks to arrive, but to begin with we’ve ordered 300 copies.”

A spokesman for Al Rawazin bookshop told Times of Oman, “We had copies of the book, but we sold out all of our Arabic and English copies today. A fresh shipment of the Arabic books will arrive next Saturday. We’ve sold 250 Arabic copies and 50 English copies since the book was longlisted, and are currently waiting for the next shipment.”

Shaukath Ali added that demand for Celestial Bodies is sure to increase in the coming days.

He said: “The Arab world, especially Oman, woke up to the great news of a daughter of Oman winning the Man Booker Prize. It is heartening for every Oman resident to know that this is the first time an Arabic language writer has won this prestigious award.

“As a person who has been in Oman, especially in the world of books, for the last thirty years, it is a proud moment for me. I am sure every resident of Oman will have the same feeling of pride and joy for Jokha Al Harthi.”

Bushra Khalfan, an author, added, “My happiness with Jokha’s win is unmatched. She deserved it, and I knew it would happen. Jokha is a highly intelligent and calm literary personality. Her novel is gorgeous, one of the best Omani novels, and it found its way to a highly capable translator who was able to open a portal into Omani society, which was almost unknown in its time of transformation.

“It stays away from hapless shouting and shines a light on the strength and struggles of Omani women,” she added. “Jokha deserved to win this award, and we should all be happy with her accomplishments.”

A manager of a Borders Books branch in Oman, told Times of Oman, “We don’t have copies at this time, but we have ordered it and soon the title will be available.” At the bookstore itself, an employee told Times of Oman, “There have been a lot of people ordering the book, so we’re stocking up on it to satisfy that demand.”

The book has received wide acclaim, with Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon saying in an online statement, “Loved this book. Congratulations to author, Jokha Al Harthi and translator, Marilyn Booth, and, of course, to its Scottish publisher Sandstone Press.”

Omama Al Lawati, an Omani writer, told Times of Oman, “I read the Arabic version four years ago and noticed its beauty at once. I was not surprised at all when it was shortlisted for the prize, and I was extremely happy to hear that it won.

“This is going to be great for Omani readers and writers,” she added, “as people become more interested in Omani books. It makes sense that it is Jokha, since she is so good among Omani writers. Jokha’s writing is beautiful and thoughtful, which is why she deserved to win,” she added.

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