Jokha Alharthi struggled to get prize-winning 'Celestial Bodies' published in English

'Celestial Bodies' was the first book original written in Arabic to win the esteemed prize

HAY-ON-WYE, WALES - MAY 25: Jokha al-Harthi, novelist and winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, during the 2019 Hay Festival on May 25, 2019 in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)
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If you've read Jokha Alharthi's Celestial Bodies, you know it's something of a coiled puzzle.

The Man Booker International-winning novel has a complex structure, alternating between third- and first-person narration, the tangled stories giving a kaleidoscopic viewpoint of life in the Al Awafi village in Oman. Its complexity rewards readers willing to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Slavery was a part of history, and not just in the Arab world. As sensitive and shameful as it was, we can't ignore it and its effects in the modern world. We can't keep quiet about it and pretend it never happened

Alharthi told the crowd at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Friday that her mind works in a more organised and linear way than the structure of her novel, but that she knew she had to resort to a more complex format as she set out to tell a story from multiple perspectives. “The circular and interwoven structure suited my writing style better,” the Omani author said.

It seems it was the right decision, considering Celestial Bodies became the first book originally written in Arabic to win the International Man Booker Prize when it nabbed the award last year. The book was translated to English by Marilyn Booth, and is now being translated into more than 20 languages.

That almost didn't happen, as Alharthi revealed when she said she and Booth had trouble finding a publisher for the English translation. “We wanted to keep the novel just the way it was. We finally found an independent Scottish publisher, Sandstone Press, to pick up the book.”

Amazingly, Alharthi only actually met her publisher during the Booker award ceremony. “I asked him why he decided to publish the book, a bit late I know,” she told the crowd, chuckling. “He said he found it to be a compassionate piece of writing.”

In Arabic, the book's title is Sayyidat el-Qamar, which literally translates to 'Ladies of the Moon'. "Marilyn and I decided against using a literal translation," Alharthi said on Friday. "As it may have a different connotation in English than it does in Arabic. We decided to go for Celestial Bodies, and I think it works better for the English version."

Tackling tough subjects

The book touches upon unrequited love, suicide, adultery and slavery.  Alharthi does not shy away from discussing tough topics, whether in the book or on the Al Baraha stage, where she was speaking as part of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

“Slavery was a part of history, and not just in the Arab world. It was present from Ancient Greece to China to the South of the United States. As sensitive and shameful as it was, we can’t ignore it and its effects in the modern world. We can’t keep quiet about it and pretend it never happened. That’s why I chose to highlight the issue in the book.”

Alharthi added that she didn’t want to write a folkloric celebration of Oman, but wanted to dig deeper. “I think folkloric displays can be a bit superficial, whereas a novel explores themes and heritage a lot more.

“I am interested in history, just as far as it goes to lighting up a specific portion of time,” Alharthi said when asked about her book being placed in the historical fiction genre. “I use history as an inspiration. I like to use my imagination to fill out the rest of the story.”

Alharthi grew up in a household that loved literature: a few members of her family were poets, and her mother would often recite works by 10th century Iraqi poet Al Muttanabi and Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. “I didn’t know then what an effect that had on me at the time, but looking back, it was profound, and likely led me to the path I’m on.”

Celestial Bodies is Alharthi's second of three novels. She has also published three collections of short stories and three children's books. Her latest novel Narinjah will be published in English in 2021.