The final pages of Jokha Alharthi’s ground-breaking novel Celestial Bodies were for a brief moment under threat in the English translation. Her editor wanted to lose the dream-like sequence. But while the Omani writer agreed to alter the Arabic text by adding chapter headings and varying fonts for the character Abdullah’s narrations, she put her foot down on axing the last section. “I said … if I have to remove that, then don’t publish it.” Alharthi knew what mattered. Celestial Bodies won the International Man Booker prize last year and in retrospect, those final pages seem critical to the work she so brilliantly does throughout the novel, disrupting readers’ expectations of what life might be like in a small town in the Middle Eastern sultanate.
When we meet, Alharthi leaps immediately into conversation despite a long flight, little sleep and her session on stage at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington before a sold-out audience.
Coffee arrives, not that she appears to need it. Her mind is sharp, her language relaxed, as we talk about the frustrating stereotypes of Arab women that she continues to come up against, especially now the novel is finding new audiences. “For the cover of my book now I’m having problems with some publishers in other languages because they want to post a picture on the cover of a fully-covered woman with only her eyes showing, or a very sad woman, looking like this …” She demonstrates a dramatically sorrowful face. “And I say, ‘do you think that’s what this book is about?’”
Alharthi was already a well-established writer when she won the prize, with ten books, including two previous novels, and a doctorate to her name. But finding a publisher for the English translation of Celestial Bodies was not easy. Publishers seemed to have a narrow idea of what a novel about the Middle East could be. Then Sandstone Press, a small publisher in Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands, agreed to take the work – including the last pages. “Because it was so sympathetic,” Sandstone’s director, Robert Davidson told Arlarthi, when they finally met in person at the Booker ceremony.
The Booker award has brought about many changes, and a lot of attention. Alharthi takes it all in her stride. “Well, I wouldn’t be here in New Zealand,” she told festival interviewer Kiran Dass when asked what winning the prize had meant for her. “Actually I hadn’t thought of New Zealand,” she told me later. “And then I was looking at my Google feed and there was this review of my book and I thought: Wow! Even in New Zealand they are reading my book!”
Alharthi’s own story is rich with literary tradition and history. Her great-grandmother was a scholar who Jokha recalls commanding a regular audience in her home, while her grandfather spoke entirely in poetic verse to her as a child, so that she thought for years he didn’t know how to talk regularly. Her family’s bookshelf was full of classical Arabic literature, which she grew up reading, until she discovered a second collection of dust-covered books in the storeroom, deemed too shabby to be kept in the main house. Translations of Agatha Christie then became her literary diet. “I took the whole series and I shut myself in my room, pretending that I have exams and things, so that no-one asked me to dinner and so on!” she laughs. Victor Hugo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Chekov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanasaki, were also early influences. She describes reading Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Isolation as the point at which she became truly enamoured with literature. “Not that I understood it at thirteen,” she said. Later came Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. With Amazon as their bookshelf, her own children, aged 15, 9 and 2 are more selective in their reading, she says, preferring to stick to “age-appropriate” works.
It was to classical Arabic literature that Alharthi returned in her twenties as an academic, undertaking her PhD at the University of Edinburgh in 2006, which was also where she began (with a 4-month old baby) writing Celestial Bodies as a way to — in her words — ”keep warm” by the comfort of her mother tongue and stories of home. The influence of that literary tradition runs deep in the novel, evidenced in particular by its poetic efficiency. Alharthi talks about the importance of precision when she writes, how she must “taste every sentence” which partly explains how this very slim book reads like an extensive family saga. Entire lives and characters are contained in single images or page-long stories. The text comprises only the details, moments and words that really matter.
Alharthi has a distinct relationship to time. When she speaks and writes about Oman’s history, there’s a sense it just happened, which in some ways it has, with the gulf country having undergone massive change in recent decades. But it’s also deliberate. Alharthi says she makes a distinction between writing history, and writing historical novels. She is not interested in the latter, which fix the past at a distance. In Celestial Bodies time is mesmerisingly fluid, moving from past to present to future in the space of sentences, and for Alharthi, Omani history is not a straight-forward story either. In the novel, one event, or one subject, can have several tellings, Accounts vary, even factually. “The past, for me, is open to possibilities, as the future is.”
Classical Arabic literature makes its way into the novel in many ways, including several references to the Greek myth of the missing half, or ‘soulmate’. In the eighth and ninth centuries many Greek myths were translated by Arabic scholars. “But they didn’t just translate them, Alharthi says. “They added some of their own thoughts.” Alharthi also adds hers. In Celestial Bodies Asma, obsessed with the idea of a soul mate, comes to realise she cannot rely on someone else to complete her, but rather must find her own orbit.
Like their author, Alharthi’s characters are all defiantly positioned in their own orbits, as people with their own stories, not ones predefined by their identities as woman, slave, master, man, child, Bedouin, mother, and so on. Each character is first and foremost an individual. Even the brutal, violent Sulayman, a slave trader who traumatises his son Abdullah by hanging him upside-down in a well, is complex and sympathetic. “He thought he was doing the right thing for his son, to raise him as a man,” Jokha says, pointing out that patriarchy can be as hard on males as it is on females. ‘I feel empathy to all my characters. I can’t say this character is bad, this one is good.’
With such rigorously honest writing and a loyalty to her characters as individuals, stereotypes can’t survive in the novel, and perhaps also begin to be changed outside of it. Alharthi isn’t the only one in her family to reshape perceptions. The day after she won the International Booker, Alharthi’s aunt, Nadhira Al Harthy, became the first Omani woman to summit Mount Everest. ‘Nadhira wanted to step outside the box Arab women are put into,’ noted a Oman newspaper. The landscape of the imagination in which her niece works is less quantifiable, but there’s no doubt Alharthi is a writer scaling its peaks, as well as surveying its depths.