An Omani author’s “captivating” novel tracing the modern history and rise to prosperity of her country through the lives of two families has won a prestigious French literary award.
The French translation of Celestial Bodies, published this year, has won Jokha Alharthi the 2021 prize for Arab literature, awarded by the Institute of the Arab World in Paris.
Alharthi began writing the novel when she was a young mother caring for her baby daughter while pursuing a doctorate far from home at the University of Edinburgh.
“I came to love Edinburgh,” said Alharthi, who lectures in classical Arab literature at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat.
“But when I arrived, it was freezing cold and I was in a new environment without friends and facing a new language. Writing each evening in Arabic, after working in English all day, gave me balance and brought the warmth of Oman back into my life.”
Previous honours for Celestial Bodies include the Man Booker International Prize 2019 – becoming the first novel originally in an Arabic to win – and a “best Omani novel” award in her own country after the original Arab version appeared in 2010.
In their citation, the Paris judging panel described Celestial Bodies as “a captivating and poetic novel that allows us to discover an Omani society in full transformation, as well as the living conditions and aspirations of its population".
"Although anchored in Omani reality, this book speaks for all mankind and addresses the universal.”
In Paris to collect the award, worth €10,000 ($11,340, Dh41,500), Ms Alharthi, now 43, reflected on the book’s origins and its success.
“I wanted to trace the development of my country, from the 19th century to the millennium, through the lives of four generations of the families,” she told The National.
“We see through the complex relationships how old values came to be questions and understand how Omani people reacted to and embraced rapidly changing lives after the discovery of oil.”
Her daughter was only 9 months old when Ms Alharthi and her husband, a civil engineer, moved to Scotland to enable her to further her Arab literature studies.
Celestial Bodies was her second novel. She has gone on to write two more, including Bitter Orange Tree, English translations of which are to be published in the United States and UK in May next year. She has also written three children’s books, three collections of short stories and three academic works.
“I write because I need to write,” she said. “An Arab scholar once said some books are like some people: just lucky. Maybe Celestial Bodies is my lucky book.”
The family’s expansion – she now has three children, aged 16, 13 and 3 – and her full-time academic job means there is no disciplined structure to her writing.
“I cannot say 'right, I will write from 8am to 5pm',” she said. “That approach works for other writers but I am a mum and I work. I have to do my duties as a mother as well.
“Also, I don’t force myself. If I find myself running out of ideas or not really feeling for my characters, I am quite happy to stop writing, maybe for two or three months.”
Ms Alharthi, who has become accustomed to seeing her books on sale as she passes through airports, said she was proud and delighted that her work was being translated into European languages other than English. Celestial Bodies has appeared in 17 languages, with four more in the pipeline.
“In France, for example, the translation of books from Oman or the Gulf in general has not been a particularly big thing,” she said. “I hope my prize helps to open a door to the rich and deep qualities of Arab literature.”