Man Booker International Prize Winner 2019 – Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

It’s been a couple of days since the winner was announced, view the shortlist here, so if like me you hadn’t heard, the winner of the Man Booker International Prize for 2019, an international foreign language work translated into English is:

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi translated by Marilyn Robinson

“It’s less flamboyant than some of the other books, there’s a kind of poetic cunning to it. It starts feeling like a domestic drama in a fascinating world, but with the layers of philosophy, psychology and poetry, you are drawn into the prose, through the relationship between the characters. It encouraged us to read in a slightly different way.”

The £50,000 prize celebrates the finest works of translated fiction from around the world and is divided equally between its author and translator.

This was the book I was most intrigued by from the initial list to be honest, it ticks so many boxes in my reading curiosity, it comes from a little known culture, Oman, and it’s history from the other side, focused on women and ex-slaves (slavery is still a taboo subject in Oman, outlawed there in 1970).

“It’s a sensitive subject and kind of a taboo,” Alharthi said in an onstage interview. “But I think literature is the best platform to discuss sensitive issues. And slavery is not exclusive to Oman – it’s part of human history.”

The paperback comes out in five days, I’ve pre-ordered it, so watch this space for a review soon.

Celestial Bodies tells of family connections and history in the coming-of-age account of three Omani sisters. It is set against the backdrop of an evolving Oman, which is slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, at the crossroads of its complex present.

Jokha Alharthi, the first female Omani novelist to be translated into English, is the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prize. A Professor with a PhD in Classical Arabic Poetry, she is author of two other novels, two collections of short fiction and a children’s book, her work has been published in English, German, Italian, Korean, and Serbian.  An award-winning author, she has been shortlisted for the Sahikh Zayed Award for Young Writers and won the 2010 Best Omani Novel Award for Celestial Bodies.

Marilyn Booth is an American academic and translator who has translated many works of fiction from Arabic. A fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, she holds the Khalid bin Abdallah Al Saud Chair for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at the Oriental Institute.

I love how the judges summed it up:

A reader picking up this book will be absolutely entranced by this new world of human experience that it opens up. This books tells us about the extreme complexity of the emotional relationships that we have and our engagement with history. We were very impressed by the subtlety of the style and the depth of the writing, its intellectual reach. But also its ability to flex moral muscle. It is a precise and also lyrical translation, and it brings in the music of everyday speech and the music of the poetry that it draws in. The extraordinary thing about this book is it talks of a world in transition, philosophically, politically, intellectually, socially, and that is the age that we live in now.

And what better metaphor of a world in transition, on this week that an Omani woman Jokha Alharthi wins this pretigious literature prize, that this morning on May 23, 2019 her Aunt, Nadhira Alharthy was the first Omani woman to reach the summit of Mt Everest!

The morning after the prize was announced, the Sharjah Book Authority in the United Arab Emirates announced the creation of the Turjuman* Award, valued at $350,000, which will go to publishing houses that facilitate the translation of Arabic literature.

Buy a Copy of Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi via Book Depository

*Turjuman comes from an Arabic root for interpreter or guide, a translator.

Have you read it, or any others from the shortlist?

9 thoughts on “Man Booker International Prize Winner 2019 – Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

  1. I’m reading it now, Claire. And, so far, I’m very, very impressed. I haven’t read any of the others from the shortlist but have read two from the long list.. Of those, I’ve continued to think about The Death of Murat Idrissi. It’s a novella that casts an unflinching eye on the desperation and alienation that is part of the migration experience. That it wasn’t shortlisted surprised me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m very keen to read this one.
    And how excellent that (at last) some of the wealth in the Middle East is going towards translating their literature. What better way to foster understanding of this most misunderstood and stereotyped region can there be?!

    Liked by 1 person

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