This month, Jokha Alharthi made history by becoming the first Omani woman to have a novel translated into English and the first Arabic-language author to win the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for her book, Celestial Bodies (Sayyidat al-Qamar). The coming-of-age novel, which is Alharthi’s third novel and which was translated by Marilyn Booth, tells the story of three sisters and their families in the village of Al Awafi who witness first-hand Oman’s political and social transition. The story focuses on middle-class Omanis trying to come to terms with changes to their way of life during the country’s cultural evolution from a traditional society during the post-colonial period.
According to Los Angeles Times, Bettany Hughes, who was the chair of the panel of judges that selected this year's winner, praised the novel, saying in a statement that its “delicate artistry draws us into a richly imagined community — opening out to tackle profound questions of time and mortality and disturbing aspects of our shared history […] The translation is precise and lyrical, weaving in the cadences of both poetry and everyday speech. Celestial Bodies evokes the forces that constrain us and those that set us free."
As reported by BBC, Alharthi told journalists after the ceremony at the Roundhouse in London she was “thrilled that a window has been opened to the rich Arabic culture […] Oman inspired me but I think international readers can relate to the human values in the book - freedom and love.” She also pointed out that the story touches on the subject of slavery, a topic still relatively underdiscussed in this region, and how she believes that literature “is the best platform to have this dialogue.”
Other books shortlisted for this year's award included Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Shape of the Ruins. Winners of The Man Booker International Prize receive a cash award of about $64,000, which is split between the author and the translator. Authors and translators who made the shortlist each were given cash prizes of about $1,300.