The Anglophone publishing industry functions through a particular tension. It creates space for voices from the Global South, rewarding select works with translation into English: the gateway to a large market and a stamp of literary value. Branded ‘world literature’ (in which ‘world’ means ‘everyone else’) these texts broaden the horizons of a global Anglophone readership, introducing them to the cultures, literatures and histories of geographies otherwise only accessible to those who travel. But the power to judge literary value continues to flow in one direction alone: from the ‘fascinating’ and ‘traditional’ culture towards the default culture of modernity, the Euro-American one. As the success of writers like Salman Rushdie and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie attest to, it is no small thing when Western arbiters of literary value designate you a good representative of the ‘world’.
Into this double bind comes this year’s Man Booker International winner: Celestial Bodies (2010, translated 2018) by Omani writer Jokha Alharthi. A striking feat, it deserves the world’s attention – perhaps, even, for being the first winner to be translated from Arabic, or the first English translation of an Omani female writer. But it deserves attention foremost for its haunting story and characters: as Alharthi’s translator Marylin Booth pinpoints, ‘too often, Arabic fiction is thought of as a road-map to the Arab world rather than first and foremost as art, pushing the boundaries of what can be thought and said’. For Alharthi, to ‘explain’ the Arab world was never her desire: ‘I’ve aimed to depict lives that will resonate with many Omani youngsters, while offering a relatable social image of 21st-century Oman.’ In revealing Omani history through marginalized voices, Celestial Bodies also lays bare those global forces that enable, amongst other things, unequal conditions of value and circulation.
Alharthi’s remarkable novel is a mosaic composed of several chronologies and points of view. Chapters focus on the interiorities of a recurring set of characters from several families in the Omani village of al-Awafi. Their individual recollections carry us back and forth between the fifties and the nineties, charting an accelerated period of political change and modernization in Oman. There is Abdallah, whose flashbacks to his difficult childhood haunt him as an adult with cripplingly low self-esteem. He lives for his vivacious daughter London, and his wife Mayya who is indifferent to his love. Abdallah’s impatience with his autistic youngest son, Mohammed, often overwhelms him with guilt. He fears turning into his tyrannical father, who used to verbally abuse and physically punish him.
Mayya’s father Azzam tries to forget the pain of a long-dead son by seeking solace in a Bedouin woman, Najiya. Known in her community as Qamar (the moon), the beautiful Najiya has spurned marriage and built her own wealth in livestock. Azzam, prone to bouts of melancholy and asceticism, struggles to reconcile his Sufi spirituality with his desire. His middle daughter Asma, the bookworm, is the only one who shares in her father’s love of poetry. In some ways the author’s mouthpiece, Asma’s reverence for the written and spoken poetry recalls Alharthi’s own interests as a scholar of classical Arabic literature.
The politics of language quietly haunts the novel: one of its several subtle observations on Oman’s economic and cultural globalization. ‘Why didn’t you learn English when you were little?’ his childhood teacher asks Abdallah. ‘Don’t you know it’s the most important language in the world?’ Mayya hangs English countryside scenes in her bedroom and inexplicably names her daughter London. Less a yearning for the Occident, however, hers is a silent rebellion. These and the older characters’ memories of the Jebel Akhdar War (1954–1959), where Britain bombed villages to guarantee the flow of oil, contextualize Alharthi’s story within the long history of British colonialism in the Gulf
Oman’s history of slavery also features powerfully in Celestial Bodies. One of the last countries to abolish slavery in 1970, the descendants of slaves continue to experience social discrimination and economic hardship. The former slaves in the novel, which freedom has left both changed and unchanged, show us the complex legacy of this history on subjectivities. Zarifa, a mother figure to Abdallah and once the slave and mistress of his father Sulayman the Merchant, sees no injustice in her servitude. Managing Sulayman’s household is all Zarifa (whom we only later learn is African) has ever known. Only when her erstwhile master dies does Zarifa follow her son to Kuwait. Here, Alharthi subtly asks questions about the continuities that exist between those past horrors we roundly condemn and the exploitative present we deem progress. The likely conditions awaiting an impoverished, migrant labourer like Sanjar anywhere in the world can barely warrant being called freedom.
The colonial past saw ethnographic and Orientalist representations of the non-white Other by Europeans; nowadays, those who speak in translation have representational agency over their lives, histories and heritages. But the Global North’s dedicated categories – world literature, postcolonial literature, literature-in-translation – can still curiously homogenize the diverse voices they ‘discover’. However, this does not mean that a translated work has lost its critical edge, or its powers of creativity and affect. Examining a difficult national history without compromising its vivid cast of characters and lyrical language, Celestial Bodies does what the best literature does: it takes us out of ourselves only to bring us to a better understanding of our world.
Main image: Jokha Alharthi wins the Man Booker International Prize, 2019, photograph. Courtesy: Man Booker Prizes
Sarah Jilani is a freelance culture writer who has been published in The Economist, Aesthetica Magazine and Times Literary Supplement. She is a PhD candidate in postcolonial literatures at The University of Cambridge.