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International interest in Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies has increased since the novel claimed the £50,000 Man Booker International Prize on 21 May. Alharthi is the first female Omani novelist to be translated into English and she shares the prize with the translator, US academic Marilyn Booth. At the time of writing the novel had sold to Simon & Schuster in India, there were two offers on the table from Australia and interest from a number of US publishers.
The novel’s UK publisher, Scottish independent Sandstone Press which was founded in 2004, bought World English Language rights from Charles Buchan at the Wylie Agency in London. The novel’s original Arabic publisher is Dar Al Adab of Beirut, Lebanon which published the book under the title Sayyidat Al Qamar. Buchan met the novel’s translator in Oxford in 2017; Booth passed the novel to Buchan who later met the author and took the novel to Sandstone. “I have had the great pleasure and honour of working with Jokha ever since,” Buchan said.
Sandstone’s English language sales are handled by Claire Roberts Global Literary Management in New York. Buchan is handling other territories and said that following the Man Booker win there was “considerable interest elsewhere, with offers in several territories”.
Alharthi said: “I am absolutely thrilled that Celestial Bodies has won the Man Booker International Prize. It is a great honour and I hope it will open a window to Arabic literature and Omani literature in particular. I feel incredibly proud.”
Booth said: ‘This is such an exciting award for the literature of the Gulf. I hope it gets publishers and readers more interested in the rich literature of the region.’
Sandstone’s MD, Robert Davidson, said that the company had put through the “biggest print run in our history” following the win, and commented: ‘All of us at Sandstone Press are delighted and proud to be the publisher of this fine novel which has been beautifully translated by Marilyn Booth. The Man Booker International Prize of 2019 is not only a first for Oman but also a milestone achievement for this company. More importantly, the people of Oman, and especially the women of Oman and the wider region, have a new star to follow in the shape of a young author who is only at the beginning of what I believe will be a lifetime of achievement. We all have much to celebrate.”
The novel is the story of the history and people of modern Oman told through one family’s losses and loves. The chair of the judges, historian, writer and broadcaster Bettany Hughes, said: “This is a book to win over the head and the heart in equal measure, worth lingering over. Interweaving voices and timelines are beautifully served by the pacing of the novel. Its delicate artistry draws us into a richly imagined community — opening out to tackle profound questions of time and mortality and disturbing aspects of our shared history. The style is a metaphor for the subject, subtly resisting clichés of race, slavery and gender. The translation is precise and lyrical, weaving in the cadences of both poetry and everyday speech. Celestial Bodies evokes the forces that constrain us and those that set us free’.
Jokha Alharthi is the author of two collections of short fiction, a children’s book, and three novels. Fluent in English, she completed a PhD in Edinburgh, and teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat. She has been shortlisted for the Sahikh Zayed Award for Young Writers and her short stories have been published in English, German, Italian, Korean, and Serbian. Celestial Bodies also won the Best Omani Novel in 2010, following its original publication in Arabic.