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I do not want to write fiction that preaches: Jokha al-Harthi on Celestial Bodies and Booker Prize

Jaipur Literature Festival, 2020: Omani writer Jokha al-Harthi talks about documenting shifting political landscape, her experience in Jaipur, and more

Written by Ishita Sengupta | Jaipur | Updated: January 28, 2020 2:52:14 pm
2020 Jaipur Literature Festival, Jokha al-Harthi booker prize, 2020 Jaipur Literature Festival updates, 2020 Jaipur Literature Festival day 1, 2020 Jaipur Literature Festival diggi palace, books 2020 Jaipur Literature Festival, indian express Jaipur Literature Festival, 2020: Jokha al-Harthi is the recipient of the Man Booker International prize in 2019 and first female Omani novelist to be translated into English.

The central theme of Celestial Bodies is not an impediment to fulfilment but an intense, nagging longing that remains in spite of the fulfilment. Narrated by different characters, the trite novel unfolds mostly from the subjective perspectives of three sisters Mayya, Asma, and Khawla, residing in Omani village of al-Awafi as the author provides an intimate, lived-in picture of their shared dreams, aspirations, defiant hope, premature heartbreaks and a longing that sustains it all, coloured by the hues of suppression.

Jokha al-Harthi — recipient of the Man Booker International prize in 2019 and first female Omani novelist to be translated into English — spreads her story across three different generations, stressing on their differences but mainly on their inability to make peace with what they see and who they have become. Longing colours every alphabet of al-Harthi’s novel. The characters are constantly looking back and this results in documentation of every passing personal shame, every public humiliation. The evolving political landscape of Oman is stitched with different threads on the story al-Harthi tells. The personal here is political.

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The author is attending the Jaipur Literature Festival this year and on the sidelines spoke to indianexpress.com on the kind of fiction she prefers, her nonjudgmental empathy and what reading her work in translation feels like.

2020 Jaipur Literature Festival, Jokha al-Harthi booker prize, 2020 Jaipur Literature Festival updates, 2020 Jaipur Literature Festival day 1, 2020 Jaipur Literature Festival diggi palace, books 2020 Jaipur Literature Festival, indian express Alharthi’s second novel, Celestial Bodies (Sandstone Press, the UK, 2018), was one of the six novels to have been shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.

You use fiction to document the shifting political landscape of Oman. Do you think fictionalising the past makes it easier to write about it or does it water down the impact?

I do not want to give any direct message through my writing. I do not want to write fiction that preaches. If there is any political, social, historical issue, I would rather mix them together in a story. I want to convey them through imagination. Good literature teaches us but when it becomes too direct, it resembles sermons. I want readers to think and re-think after reading my novels.

In her review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, Parul Sehgal, book critic with The New York Times, writes, “I’m of the persuasion that fiction necessarily, even rather beautifully, requires imagining an “other” of some kind.” While writing Celestial Bodies, which is deeply entrenched in Omani politics, did you do the same or were apprehensive that other readers might not understand? 

When writing, I was not thinking of anything else. I was so immersed in my work that I did not give a thought on how the novel will be received. I had to ignore it because, if not, I would have to deal with another pressure. I was preoccupied in telling the story I wanted to tell.

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Did the Booker Prize surprise you then?

Yes, yes, in a good way, of course. The most gratifying part is it validates that others from different backgrounds are reading your work and can all relate to it in an intrinsic way. They can, we can, because we are all humans. Our circumstances can be different, but we suffer the same way. We have grown up reading Marquez and other Russian writers and we still could relate to them in a fundamental way. The prize reaffirmed that.

Your work has been translated by Marilyn Booth. How was it reading your work in a different language, crafted by words chosen by someone else?

I read the translation with every chapter and Marilyn has done a precise job. I think she has been able to capture the soul of the novel.

Do you treat all your characters alike or are you more empathetic to some? 

I feel empathy for all my characters. They have different views in life from me but it does not matter. I do not judge them.

How has it been at Jaipur?

This is my second time in the city and first time at the festival. I was so pleasantly surprised to see people have been reading my work in English. The relationship between Oman and India dates back to many, many years ago so it is thrilling to be here.

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