Questions have gone unanswered. Phone calls ignored. And those who sneakily gotten to her only managed to get one or two quotes.
It’s easy to imagine what 2019 Man Booker Prize winner Omani novelist Jokha al Harthi is feeling right now. Between the chaos of the new-found fame and accolades, it is understandable if she wanted to find a little corner to relish on the achievement.
Her name would already have been in everybody’s lips in the Sultanate — or at least to those who have social media accounts. She has just broken many firsts — first in the region to have won the award, first Arabic woman to do such remarkable feat, first Omani to have an international literary award with such prestige and first Omani author whose translated work won the award. Coming with a hefty prize of £50,000 which Jokha will share in half with academic translator Marilyn Booth, the Man Booker International Prize, originally awarded once every two years from 2005 to 2015 and becoming an annual event as of 2016, made Jokha the 10th winner since the award was announced in 2004.
Her competition was stiff this year. Of the 108 books considered for the award, 13 were longlisted which were translated from nine different languages spanning 12 countries. With her on the shortlist were 2018 winner Olga Tokarczuk with her English Translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Samanta Schweblin with her translator Megan McDowell who was shortlisted in 2017 acclaimed French author Annie Ernaux and Colombia’s Juan Gabriel Vasquez.
In a statement released after the event, the organisers described the book as “Elegantly structured and taut, it tells of Oman’s coming-of-age through the prism of one family’s losses and loves.”
About the book and the author
Jokha is an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Social Sciences department of the Sultan Qaboos University. She earned her Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies degree in 2011 and finished her PhD in Classical Arabic Literature from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Celestial Bodies is not her first published book. Her other three novels Manamat (Dreams), Sayyidat al-Qamar (Ladies of the Moon) and Narinjah (Bitter Orange) were published in 2004, 2010 and 2016 respectively. She also authored two collections of short stories — Sabi Ala al-Sath (A Boy on the Roof) published in 2007 and “fi Madih al-Hubb (Impressing Love) which came out in 2008. The rest are children’s book and studies.
This year’s Man Booker Prize judges committee found the book to be “richly imagined, engaging and poetic insight into a society in transition and into lives previously obscured.”
Set in the fictional village of Al Awafi, it follows the story of three women: “Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada.”
Switching between first and third person narrative, the story is a non-linear look into the lives of these women who were trying to navigate their way into an evolving society with one critic sharing that the book is like a puzzle with every chapter providing a clearer and full picture of the whole story.
Bettany Hughes, chair of the judges for the prize, shared, “Through the different tentacles of people’s lives and loves and losses we come to learn about this society – all its degrees, from the very poorest of the slave families working there to those making money through the advent of a new wealth in Oman and Muscat. It starts in a room and ends in a world.”
A TRUE PRIDE OF OMAN
Echoing the comments made by the chair of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize judging panel, authors and writers in Oman are all support and praise for Al Harthi. Oman Observer senior reporter Kabeer Yousuf reached out to the country’s literati to get their comments on the matter.
Novelist Bushra Khalfan shared that Jokha’s win is an eye-opener to the possibility that writers from the region had what it take to create appealing stories for an international audience and win an award.
“I am really happy that an Omani writer has made it. It is such national pride. Jokha really deserves it because she has really worked hard for it,” Khalfan said.
Acclaimed writer Zakaria al Muharmi, shared that “This prize opens a new era for Omani literature and cultural writings. It motivates Omani writers to persevere more and be more creative.
She added, “It also confirms the leadership of Omani literati over other Arab nations since Dr Jokha is the first Arab ever to win this prize and she has clearly demonstrated the richness of Omani culture and the splendour of the Omani environment. “
Writer and columnist Haider al Lawati said that her win will be etched in golden letters in Oman and the region’s history.
“It’s a million dollar worth news that all media, social, print, TV is busy describing as a national achievement. This is a real motivation for many Omani writers” he added.
Ibrahim al Hamdani, former Oman Daily Observer editor in chief and published author said that “(It was an) amazing achievement for Oman and Arabic literature as well.”
He congratulates Jokha for her excellent talent and sends special thanks to the translator Marilyn Booth who “appreciate the good artwork and managed to make the novel appealing at the international level.”
Columnist and writer Ali al Matani also said that he watched on BBC when Jokha was chosen for the Man Booker International Prize.
He also said that “it is great news and she has really made all of us in Oman proud by clinching the coveted title to the Sultanate.”