Jokha Alharthi, the first Omani woman author to be translated into English, won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize on Tuesday for her book Celestial Bodies, a story of three sisters confronting their country’s slave-owning past and a complex modern world. Slavery was abolished in the country only in 1970.
Alharthi, the first winner of the £50,000-award to write in Arabic, shared the prize equally with her translator Marilyn Booth, an American academic.
“Through the different tentacles of people’s lives and loves and losses we come to learn about this society – all its degrees, from the very poorest of the slave families working there to those making money through the advent of a new wealth in Oman and Muscat,” historian Bettany Hughes, chair of judges for the prize, told The Guardian. “It starts in a room and ends in a world.”
Hughes said the judges felt on reading the book that they were getting access to ideas, thoughts and experiences normally not given in English. “It avoids every stereotype you might expect in its analysis of gender and race and social distinction and slavery,” the historian added. “There are surprises throughout. We fell in love with it.”
Alharthi said in an onstage interview at the awards ceremony in London that Oman’s history of slavery was a sensitive subject and kind of a taboo, AP reported. “But I think literature is the best platform to discuss sensitive issues,” she added. “And slavery is not exclusive to Oman – it is part of human history.”
Celestial Bodies beat five other finalists from Europe and South America, including last year’s winner Olga Tokarczuk of Poland, whose book Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was in the running.
The award is a counterpart to the Man Booker Prize for novels written in English, and is open to books in any language that have been translated to English. This is the final year of the prize being sponsored by investment firm Man Group, which has backed the prizes for 18 years. From next year, the award will be known as the International Booker Prize.