Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies was awarded the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year, making her the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prize. She was also the first Omani author ever to have her novel translated from Arabic into English. In the following essay, writer and anthropologist MK Harb examines how Oman’s overlooked history as an imperial dynasty, and its rapidly changing society are integral to the force of Alharthi’s novel.
The internal monologue of Abdallah is unnerving, and often unsettling. Lost between trauma and nostalgia, he repeatedly reflects on his fractured relationship with his father, a notorious merchant and slave owner. Situated in the balmy village of al-Awafi, Abdallah is one of the many members of an Omani family encountering the upheavals and changes of modernity brought on by the state. To some, Oman is an obscure country with an eccentric Sultan, whilst to others, its green pastures and monsoons represent a luscious geographic rarity in the Arabian Peninsula. Unknown to many is Oman’s long and complex history as an imperial dynasty. Oman’s history is as much African as it is Arab; with Zanzibar as its capital, the Sultanate ruled in East Africa from 1698 until the bloody revolution of 1963. Oman’s rule in East Africa represents a history of vernacular and mercantile economic systems that existed prior to the arrival of modern capitalism, but it also represents a racial history of manumission and slavery. Jokha Alharthi’s award-winning novel, Celestial Bodies, tells this history, unravelling the ghosts of an empire, and the precariousness of modernity in Omani society. READ MORE…
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.”
We know you’re just as eager as we are to learn who will win the Man Booker International Prize tomorrow, so we’ve enlisted our very own Barbara Halla to walk you through her predictions! A member of this year’s Man Booker International Shadow Panel, Barbara has read every book on the short- and longlists, making her our resident expert. Read on for her top 2019 MBI picks!
Last year, someone called the Man Booker International my version of the UEFA Champions League, which is fairly true. Although I don’t place any bets, I do spend a lot of my time trying to forecast and argue about who will win the prize. And I am not alone. For a community obsessed with words and their interpretation, it is not surprising that many readers and reviewers will try to decipher the (perhaps inexistent) breadcrumbs the judges leave behind, or go through some Eurovision level of political analysis to see how non-literary concerns might favour one title over the other. Speaking from personal experience, this literary sleuthing has been successful on two out of three occasions. After a meeting with some of the judges of the 2016 MBI at Shakespeare & Company, I left with the sense that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) would take home the prize that year. In 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) seemed to be everyone’s favourite, and despite a strong shortlist, I was delighted, although not shocked, to see it win.
The winner of this year’s Man Booker prize is proving more elusive. The shortlist is strong, but no one title has become a personal, or fan-, favourite. And I find the uncertainty at this stage in the competition very interesting. It is almost in direct contrast to how the discussion around the prize unfolded between the unveiling of the longlist and the shortlist. When the longlist was announced on 12 March, it was immediately followed by a flurry of online reactions that are all part of a familiar script: despite predictions by “expert” readers, few big names and titles made it onto the longlist. With good reason, some literary critics addressed the list’s shortcomings with regards to its linguistic and national diversity. Independent presses were congratulated for again dominating the longlist, a reward for their commitment to translated fiction. But as dedicated readers tackled the longlist head-on, there was a general feeling of disappointment with a good portion of the titles, which allowed the best to rise to the top quickly.