“If you are not brave enough, you shouldn’t write,” says 2019 Man Booker International Prize winner, Jokha al Harthi. She believes that every writer needs to express himself or herself freely and without any inhibitions of whether the work will be well-received or not.
In a free-wheeling chat with TheWeek, her first in Oman since winning the coveted prize at a glittering ceremony in London in May, Jokha shared her thoughts, and revealed the intricacies behind her award-winning novel – Celestial Bodies, which was translated by Marilyn Booth from the Arabic version, Sayyidat al Qamar.
When writing the book, Jokha said, she remained undeterred by any undercurrents in society that might look at her work critically or point accusing fingers at her narrative. If a writer considers such factors, he/she would never be able to write anything and if such factors do weigh a writer down, then he/should not attempt to write, she said.
Writing was very close to Jokha’s heart from a very young age; she comes from a ‘literary family’ wherein her grandfather was a poet, her uncle, a writer and poet, and her mother, too, was fond of poetry. So, from an early age, life without literary works was unthinkable, and Jokha would read the works of classical Arabic poets, memorise them and recite them with ease.
Being surrounded by a literary atmosphere, she got naturally interested in writing as she grew up and always wantedto let her imagination take wing. She started out by wrting short stories and later compiled them as collections which were subsequently published.
“I draw inspiration to write from everything in life, from the people I meet, the things I read, and the events that happen around me,’ Jokha said, however, adding that the premise for her story was not built overnight, but over a long period of time during which she kept building the characters in her mind and the various incidents that would some day bind the characters as well as convey many different ideas.
“As a child, I used to spend a lot of time at my grandmother’s house, and it was here that I came across many interesting stories. Many people would frequent her place and each of them had something to share, some story to tell, which, as a young child, I found quite fascinating.”
Jokha said that the idea of writing a book that would wholly have an Arabic theme and reflect the local culture was conceived over a long period of time which saw her amass a treasure of numerous stories and experiences, all waiting to be moulded into a novel.
Her novel went through several stages of refinement as Jokha was very particular about presenting the story without any ambiguity.
“I keep changing words in every sentence I write, until I get the most apt one. If a word doesn’t resonate in my mind, I’m sure to replace it.”
Reality with a twist
Jokha said that, as is the local practice, one has to spend a lot of money to get a book published, which she did with her earlier publications. However, she knew Sayyidat al Qamar was something unique, and made up her mind to not pay anything for getting it published, but get paid for the effort.
And, that’s exactly what happened, she revealed smilingly.
When asked if the story of the book was inspired by any particular family she knew, Jokha said it was not so, but reiterated the fact that she since she grew up in a literary environment, she was surrounded by people who shared many different stories that fanned her imagination. Jokha also said that she did not believe in narrating reality the way it happens, but in using her imagination to develop it, add her own twist and present it in a way that is interesting and gripping.
Jokha believes that if you write, you must be open to criticism, and that she welcomes criticism on her book as long as it comes from people who understand literature and have constructive suggestions; not from those who consider themselves to be ‘pure and perfect’.
She, however, added that writers do have a responsibility which they must fulfil in all sincerity. Every written word in a book needs to be aptly chosen, she said.
Jokha said that the initial intention was to share the book with more readers. “I was once invited by the Omani Society for Writers to talk about my book and they found it so interesting that there was a suggested to get it translated.”
Asked if the translation did justice to the original story, Jokha recalled the words of a fellow author who once told her, ‘You have to accept the fact that a translation is another book’ and that she took the suggestion with a sigh of relief, without worrying about the outcome.
However a lot of painstaking efforts went into constantly coordinating with the translator who also had to be sent images of many common terms in Oman, like ‘falaj’ and ‘mandoos’ for her to get a real picture of certain words.
The title of the book in English was also arrived at after much deliberation though Sayyidat al Qamar direcly translates as Women of the Moon.
The ‘award-winning author’ tag
Asked if the Man Booker award tag would now make it easier for her to seek publishers for her future books, Jokha said, “Not at all. I still need to prove myself with every new book.”
Message to budding writers in Oman
Be ready for a lot of hard work and never give up.
First Arab author to win the prize
Celestial Bodies, written by Jokha al Harthi, translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth and published by Sandstone Press, was announced as the winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize by Bettany Hughes, award-winning historian, author and broadcaster, at a ceremony at the Roundhouse in London on May 21.
The novel was selected by a panel of five judges, chaired by Hughes and comprising Maureen Freely, writer, translator and chair of English PEN; Angie Hobbs, philosopher professor; Elnathan John, novelist and satirist; and Pankaj Mishra, essayist and novelist.
The first female Omani novelist to be translated into English, Jokha is also the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prize. Author of two other novels – two collections of short fiction and a children’s book – her work has been published in English, German, Italian, Korean and Serbian.