Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Bucharest makes waves and the Man Booker International hits headlines.

News of the Man Booker International winner has made its way around the senses of the literary-minded public around the world, but we are here with a personal take on its winner, and why this unprecedented win has earned its accolades and perhaps could also potentially earn a place on your shelf. Also on our list is the incredibly poetic nation of Romania, who presented a manifold of verse champions for Bucharest’s International Poetry Festival. Reporting from amongst the greats are our editors at the front.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, covering the Man Booker International 2019

I was many things the night of the Man Booker International announcement, but gracious wasn’t one of them. Before the announcement was made on May 21, I wrote for Asymptote about my thoughts on the longlist and (correctly) predicted that Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth and published by Scottish indie Sandstone Press, would win it. Celestial Bodies represents many firsts in the prize’s history: it is the first book written in Arabic to win the prize, as well as the first book by an Omani author (in fact, Jokha Alharthi is the first female Omani author to ever be translated into English) and with a Scottish press to do so. Although its win was a bit of a surprise to others (being as it was surrounded by books receiving a lot more press and praise), the judges seemed quite taken with it. Talking to Five Books, and even during her announcement, chair of the judges, Bettany Hughes, highlighted one particular line from Celestial Bodies that she believed embodies the spirit of the prize itself: “We get to know ourselves better in new, strange places.”

It’s true that for many readers, Celestial Bodies will be something almost entirely new. The story starts out with the marriage of Mayya, one of three sisters from an Omani family, who together represent the central axis around which the story then unfurls. Celestial Bodies follows the three sisters from their adolescent years into middle age, and through Mayya, Asma, Khawla, and the people they are tied to (parents, husbands, children, servants), the reader comes to discover quite a bit of Oman’s twentieth century history: from the Treaty of Sib in 1920 that divided the country in two separate spheres of influence, to the Jebel Akhdar War and the abolition of slavery in 1970. 

At the same time, however, Celestial Bodies feels deeply familiar. At its core, it is a family saga about the fraught relationship between children and parents, a fight that exemplifies how history influences individual lives. Mayya names her firstborn daughter London, projecting onto her a love story and futures she never had the chance to live. Asma converses with her father through poetry and fights with her elders about women’s relationship to Islam:

Asma skipped through some pages and suddenly, catching a particular passage, she smiled. She read it out loud.

“Abu Huraya, may God be pleased with him, recited: When the Messenger of God (may God’s prayers and mercy be upon him) was praying, he said to his wife, Aisha, hand me my robe. She said, But I am having my period. He said, That isn’t your fault and it doesn’t matter.”

I was sure there was something, Asma bayed. I knew it!

And these are but two of the dozens of characters whose stories are told throughout Celestial Bodies. Despite the intimidating family tree that opens up the book, it is hard not to get wrapped in their world and the world Alharthi has portrayed. Celestial Bodies is a fantastic read and the worthiest winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.

MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Romania

The 10th edition of the Bucharest International Poetry Festival (May 13-19) featured over one hundred poets from four continents, multiple events, performances, round tables, and exhibitions for a whole week, and productively clashed on its last night with the European Night of Museums 2019. The impressive line-up included Korean Nobel Prize frontrunner Ko Un, French luminaries Guy Goffette and Michel Deguy (occasioning the launch of a whole issue of the journal Secolul 21, dedicated to Deguy, during the festival), past Asymptote contributor Matei Vișniec with a couple of theatrical performances and new poetry books, and outstanding poets from Spain, Colombia, Poland, the Ukraine, Canada, the US, and beyond. This international roster appeared alongside spectacular Romanian/Moldovan and Romanian-international poets, translators, performers, and editors—such as Ioana Ieronim and Magda Cârneci—and even a transnational writer. A couple of exhibitions, such as the one dedicated to twentieth century photographer and filmmaker Eli Lotar—emphasizing his art in connection to politically radical surrealist literature and cinematic gods such as Luis Buñuel—and surrealist icon Gherasim Luca grabbed major public attention and mass-media coverage while reemphasizing the special traditional and manifold French-Romanian cultural connection.

As a major international event, the festival resonates with stronger and stronger trends in Romanian literature towards developing internationally relevant and readable projects out of or regarding Romania, while addressing a wider readership. A relevant title in that respect is the 2017 Romanian Literature as World Literature (eds. Mircea Martin et al.) from Bloomsbury, followed by significant critical literary and theory books coming out from Romanian presses by authors such as Carmen Mușat, Alexandru Matei, and Teodora Dumitru, who are well received in the western or English-speaking world. An established trailblazer in that respect is past Asymptote contributor Felix Nicolau, who has authored books in English or in facing-page English-Romanian translation addressing both domestic and international audiences for over a decade, and has meanwhile founded and edited the widely cited Swedish Journal of Romanian Studies.


Read more dispatches on the Asymptote blog: