It’s 8.30pm. Author Jokha Alharthi is exhausted after two public talks and a long book signing session at the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters, held last month in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. “Just too many people,” she says.
Yet, the Arabic writer eagerly meets a young, heavily pregnant fan who had made a long trip to the festival just to meet her. “Such interactions are heart-warming,” says the 1978-born author from Oman, as she settles down to talk about Arabic literature, her award-winning novels and managing her time as a mother, teacher and a writer.
In 2019, Alharthi became the first Arab to win the prestigious International Booker Prize, for her novel Celestial Bodies, along with the book’s English translator Marilyn Booth. The book is centred on three sisters and their love and longing in Oman. Her Her second novel, Bitter Orange Tree, has been long-listed for the Dublin Literary Award, the winner of which will be announced in May. Alharthi has also written children’s stories, short stories and two other novels.
Since her International Booker win, Alharthi has attended literary events around the world. “Sometimes, it’s overwhelming. To write, you have to be isolated. If you are constantly attending events, it’s hard to concentrate on your project,” says Alharthi, who is an associate professor of Arabic language and literature at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat.
As a teacher, who must interact with people every day, and a mother of three, Alharthi craves quiet time when she can read and write. “If I can’t find the time to read and write, I will collapse."
So, very early in her life she decided to only attend selective family gatherings. “I am not a sociable person. I avoid social demands,” she says. “We Omanis have big families and many celebrations, but I attend very few.
“People get used to it and stop inviting you, which is a good thing.”
Even as a child, Alharthi prioritised reading over anything else. She recalls escaping the many guests in her home and household chores, running away to her grandfather’s home to peacefully read her books. “I was 10 years old when I devoured Agatha Christie’s books,” she says.
At 12, she read 10th-century Baghdadi poet Abu Al Faraj Al Isfahani’s Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs). The encyclopaedic collection of poems and songs has more than 20 volumes across 10,000 pages, with 16,000 verses of Arabic poetry, which the author said took him 50 years to write. “The book is full of social and cultural anecdotes that may not have been suitable reading material for a 12-year-old, but it didn’t harm me. The book shaped my understanding of Arabic literature.”
Her love for writing began with her diaries, followed by writing short stories in college. She also wrote while pursuing her PhD in Scotland, which also became a means for her to cope with homesickness. “My first year in the UK was quite challenging. Everything was new and unknown including the cold weather,” she says. “I couldn’t connect with people initially, and was faced with the challenge of writing in English for the very first time and that, too, a PhD thesis. But writing fiction in Arabic helped me. It was a refuge, an escape from my problems.”
But as time went by, things got easier. “I realised that the distance from my country helped me see it in better light. It made me understand things about my country, which I was too close to grasp while living there.”
Bitter Orange Tree, published in May last year, is also set in Oman. It illustrates its central characters in the background of the country’s transformation from a traditional, rural country to a modern, prosperous state in the early 1970s.
Grandmother Bint Amir’s life of hardships, being abandoned by her father and stepmother owing to not having enough food, living with an adopted family and serving them all their lives, damaging one of her eyes with traditional medicines and then trying to fix it through modern medicines, speaks volumes of life in Oman during the transformation.
The inspiration for Amir’s granddaughter Zuhour seems to have come from Alharthi’s own life. While studying in the UK, she realises that Amir, an uneducated but smart and determined matriarch, was one of the most important people in her life. But Alharthi insists that her characters feel and think differently from her. Yet, she admits to enduring their agony and frustrations. “The process of writing is inseparable from suffering. I have to empathise with my characters to understand how they think and feel. It is hard to write about these things, but at the same time, it’s also amazing to discover new worlds.”
Her worlds are grim, layered with intense, dark emotions and, at times, are disturbing. Her writing details the deep mental anguish of her characters, especially women.
“Mental health for women around the world is a big issue,” says Alharthi, who grew up in a large family with eight sisters and four brothers. She has heard, first-hand, stories of many women across generations.
“These women have so many responsibilities on their shoulders. They are expected to be a perfect wife, a perfect mother and a perfect employee. It’s too much to expect from a woman, and can be exhausting,” she says. “We need to be more tolerant towards mothers and ourselves and ensure that women seek help and enough help is available to them.”