Omani author Jokha Alharthi has become the first Arabic-language writer to win the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for her novel Celestial Bodies, which explores family connections and history in the coming-of-age account of three sisters.
Alharthi’s book beat five other shortlisted novels from Europe and South America to take the prize, which celebrates translated fiction from around the world and included a $64,000 award divided equally between author and translator.
“I am thrilled that a window has been opened to the rich Arabic culture,” Alharthi told reporters after the ceremony on Tuesday in Britain’s capital, London.
“Oman inspired me but I think international readers can relate to the human values in the book – freedom and love,” the 40-year-old added.
We’re delighted to announce our #MBI2019 winner is Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth and published by Sandstone Press. Read more here: https://t.co/rWHBRXwDOy pic.twitter.com/SfJr2Yg98u
— The Booker Prizes (@TheBookerPrizes) May 21, 2019
Celestial Bodies is set in the Omani village of al-Awafi, home to the three sisters: Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries out of a sense of duty; and Khawla, who is waiting for her beloved who has emigrated to Canada.
The sisters witness Oman’s evolution from a traditional, slave-owning society.
“It touches the subject of slavery. I think literature is the best platform to have this dialogue,” Alharthi said.
Historian Bettany Hughes, who led the five-member judging panel, said that the winning novel was “a book to win over the head and the heart in equal measure”.
“Celestial Bodies evokes the forces that constrain us and those that set us free.”
Alharthi’s translator was US academic Marilyn Booth, who teaches Arabic literature at Oxford University and produced a translation that was “precise and lyrical, weaving in the cadences of both poetry and everyday speech”, according to Hughes.
In a post on Twitter, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she “loved” Alharthi’s book and offered her congratulations.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) May 21, 2019
Alharthi is the author of two previous collections of short fiction, a children’s book and three novels in Arabic.
She studied classical Arabic poetry at Edinburgh University and teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman’s capital, Muscat.