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…
The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers, translated from the Spanish by Kit Maude, Feminist Press, 2018.
What could freedom from the pressures and expectations of society mean for a woman in Uruguay in the 1950s, and what might the impact of this freedom be on others? These questions are explored by Uruguayan author, scholar, and feminist Armonía Somers in The Naked Woman. Written in 1950, this is the first of Somers’ books to be translated into English. The novel tells an energetic and enthralling story through which Somers articulates a pressing need in society for people to find ways to escape prescribed roles, express desire, and renew one’s sense of self. The narrative focuses on the experience of the female protagonist, Rebeca Linke, and sheds light on the repressive context of 1950s Uruguay when, according to scholar Maria Olivera-Williams, “middle-class social mores proved particularly suffocating to women.” Somers explores the effects of these constraints on women and creates a subversive protagonist who creatively and successfully challenges these expectations by allowing herself to release her natural instincts and understand new forms of intimacy. Whilst the female experience is the focus of the book, Somers’ carefully-crafted novel reveals the effects that living in a society in which women are repressed has on both women and men. She achieves this by depicting male violence against women and the harmful effects of a lack of freedom of choice.
The Naked Woman begins with Rebeca Linke’s revelation of the failed hopes that she had pinned on her thirtieth birthday. This sense of disillusionment is the driving force behind her decision to abandon her everyday existence and move to the countryside: she is desperate to break the daily monotony of her life, to embrace freedom and to live in the present. She takes a train to a small cottage in a remote part of the Uruguayan countryside where she casts off her one remaining item of clothing, her coat, having abandoned everything else. As a result, her break with the past and her commitment to the here and now becomes urgent: “[s]he was beholden to the present, like water held in the palm of a hand.” When she ventures out into the night, she is immersed in a natural environment that she has never before experienced so intimately. This then extends to her own body: she discovers its uniqueness by touching it and she remarks upon changes that she had not previously noted. It is Somers’ focus on the present, the protagonist’s physical experience of each moment, and the centrality of the female body that make the book so compelling, exciting and enticing for readers today.
Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, takes place in the author’s native Equatorial Guinea, a relatively small country on the west coast of Africa that celebrates fifty years of independence from Spain this year. La Bastarda, the first novel by a female author from Equatorial Guinea translated to English, is a deceivingly simple story of a young girl, Okomo, who grows up in the country and defines her identity in the absence of a living mother and with a father who does not claim her. Told from the perspective of Okomo, the reader begins to understand the disjointed and complicated definition of family. She is raised by her grandmother, who is the first wife of Okomo’s polygamous grandfather, is told that her mother died in childbirth due to witchcraft, and that the father she has never met is a “scoundrel.” The novel depicts Okomo’s struggle with and escape from the confines of social convention in a story that teaches the often seemingly simple, yet difficult path to individual freedom. In addition, the work can be read as an allegory for the young nation separating from its colonial “parent” Spain, and Equatorial Guinea’s existential place as an orphan—culturally and geographically separated from Spain, Latin America, and Africa, and often ignored by an array of academic fields and global politics. In La Bastarda, we read Okomo’s coming-of-age story while also acquiring a great deal of understanding about the particularities of Spanish-speaking Africa.
Explicitly about overcoming traditional roles concerning gender and sexuality, La Bastarda makes a significant contribution to queer literary culture. The novel opens as Okomo’s grandfather, Osá, scolds her for persistently wishing to seek out her father and orders her to cut his toenails, a task that, according to her, “had hardened into my personal burden” (2). Through the metaphor of her grandfather’s toenails, Okomo reveals to the reader the gender hierarchy in her family, which belongs to the largest ethnic group in mainland Equatorial Guinea, the Fang people. These gendered roles continue as her grandfather explains that in Fang tradition your mother’s brother should take over the role as father in the absence of the biological one. However, Okomo’s uncle, Marcelo, is dubbed a “man-woman” because he will not impregnate another woman and is rumored to have intimate relations with other men. While Okomo is the story’s protagonist and narrator, Marcelo is also the target of homophobia, revealing how the traditional gender roles as well as normative expectations regarding sexuality in the novel affect both men and women. Okomo’s grandmother, complicit in the perpetuation of patriarchal tradition and female subjugation, constantly berates her for not already having found a male suitor because, according to tradition, a young girl’s most important goal is to catch a husband and start a family. Her grandmother always warns, “I don’t want you to make the same mistake as your mother. She never learned a woman’s place in Fang tradition. She lived much too freely” (4). In these first few pages, Okomo summons the reader into a suffocating patriarchal and heteronormative Fang community.
Rita Stirn is a translator, author, and musician who lives in Rabat, Morocco. Her book, Les musiciennes du Maroc: Portraits choisis (Morocco’s Women in Music: Selected Portraits) was published by Marsam in late 2017. Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Hodna Nuernberg spoke with Stirn about her new publication, Moroccan music, and language politics in the region.
Hodna Nuernberg (HN): How did you decide to write a book on Morocco’s women musicians? And how did being a woman musician yourself shape your approach to researching and writing the book?
Rita Stirn (RS): I’ve always been interested in the silences of history concerning women in art and music. When I started listening to the blues as a teenager, I realized music was a man’s world. Sure, there were plenty of female singers, but very few instrumentalists; I wanted to learn about hidden talents—the women in music who weren’t getting much recognition.
I came to Morocco in 2011. I paid a lot of attention to what was going on here musically. Whenever there was a celebration out on the streets—a marriage, for example—there were inevitably women playing music. So, I’d talk to them. They’d say, “Yeah, sure, people know us,” but none of them were online anywhere. They got all their gigs by word of mouth, and little by little, I began to find out about more and more women musicians.
Around the same time, I was looking though archives for photographs of women in music. All the images were of men. There was no focus whatsoever on women’s talents or the tradition of women instrumentalists, and that’s when the book project started to take shape in my head.
The Yemeni literary scene is replete with examples of fiction that accompany the tragic events Yemen is going through, principally the war, on the one hand, and on the other the desire for social and political change. This phenomenon is clear in many Yemeni fictional works, including novels by Wejdi Al-Ahdal and Nadia Al-Kawkabani, as well as the short stories of Huda Al-Attas, Arwa ‘Abd Uthman, Saleh Ba Amer, and others. Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran in particular is among those who have touched the heart of real life in Yemen, and whose voice has reached the wider Arabic nation.
Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran’s most recent novel, The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite, was published by Dar As-Saqi in 2014. Prior to that, he had written two significant works, The Red Quran, published by Dar Riyadh Arreyis in 2010, and Yael or Yael’s Darkness.The former produced strong reactions, especially in Yemen, where the book was banned because of its bold ideas, and the latter received the Tayyeb Saleh Award in 2012. He has also written short story collections, including Bed Sheets (1997), published in Damascus by The Union of Arab Authors, and Black Minaret, published in 2004 by The Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers.
“So she’s asking the husband what his favorite vegetable is. And she’s cooking it for him,” a male teacher in Banswara District, Rajasthan is telling me in his home. I peer down at my notes. By the end of the session, I’ve realized a peculiarity: the lines he’s given me for the song being translated—grinning all the while—number far fewer than my lines of lyrics. A discrepancy calling for a more concerted effort, more translators, more women to tell their own tales.
Around this time last year, I was recording and just beginning to be enraptured by Bori Village women’s song-stories in Vagdi, an oral language under threat. As part of the EQUILIBRIUM artist’s residency at Sandarbh, working with women’s self-help economic groups as equals to create new artistic contexts, six songs were recorded by my friends from Bori in a studio—what became “The 12 Acres EP”—transcribed into Vagdi, then translated into English and Hindi, with the help of colleagues. The end goal, however, was to make these songs come to life in a wordless world, a picture book melange of visual imagery. READ MORE…