It says something that the winner of the 2019 Man Booker International prize for Literature, Jokha Alharthi, is the first woman from her country to have a novel translated into English. Alharthi – from the Arabian Gulf state of Oman – who won for her novel Celestial Bodies, shares the £50,000 prize with her translator Marilyn Booth. The book has the distinction of also being the first novel translated from Arabic to win the award.
“I am thrilled that a window has been opened to the rich Arabic culture,” Alharthi told journalists after the ceremony in London in May. “Oman inspired me but I think international readers can relate to the human values in the book – freedom and love.”
Celestial Bodies revolves around three sisters from a middle-class background in the small Omani village of al-Awafi. The novel is a fragmented collection of past and present events in Oman as they pertain to particular characters in this small village. These intricate storylines come together to shape the broader narrative of the novel, of a village going through remarkable change.
Celestial Bodies gives the reader a glimpse into a society that isn’t often spoken about in terms of its literature, culture and traditions. And a woman’s perspective is particularly rare – Arab Gulf women only really began publishing their writings in the second half of the 20th century. It’s a trend that is intimately connected to the introduction of girls’ education – spanning half a century between 1928 and 1970 in different Gulf states.
But this doesn’t mean that Arab Gulf women weren’t producing literature before then – they were particularly well known for the tradition of oral storytelling and were especially esteemed for their poetry – the works of Kuwaiti poet Suad al-Sabah and Bahraini poet Hamda Khamis are particularly worth checking out.
But it was the explosion of oil wealth, which forced the Arabian Gulf out of isolation and into the international arena – leading to the establishment of schools and newspapers and media outlets that allowed for literary creativity. Since the 1970s, Arab Gulf women’s writing has evolved – now Arab Gulf women write in a whole range of genres that reflect different themes and issues through their storylines, especially those issues which pertain to the specific experience of women in Arab Gulf society. But the novel is still something of a recent genre for Gulf women.
Modernity and nostalgia
One common theme in Arab Gulf writings is nostalgia for a simpler past, which is often used in contrast to the remarkably fast growth these countries have undergone with the discovery of oil. The narrative of Celestial Bodies draws a connection between the slave trade in Oman – the backdrop of the story – with the way Omani society started to change with the introduction of oil wealth into the region.
Although Alharthi positions her story within this narrative of tradition versus social change, she does so in a way that offers an objective outlook to the practices and history portrayed in the novel. She does this by portraying neither a romanticising of the past nor an overly optimistic focus on the positive aspects of oil revenue in the present. Instead, Celestial Bodies presents an honest portrayal of change and how it has affected different members of the village she is writing about.
A defining feature of Omani literature is that Oman, in particular out of the Arab Gulf, has remained a traditional society in many aspects, which is oftentimes reflected in the writings produced in the region. The novel makes use of specific cultural and religious features of Oman and the Arab Gulf region, such as references to supernatural spirits – or jinn – as well as the all-important date harvest – as well as allusions to classical Middle Eastern literature and poetry such as Iraqi poets al-Mutanabbi (915-965AD) and Ibn al-Rumi (836-396AD).
You don’t need to be intimately familiar with Arab Gulf customs, literature and traditions to appreciate Celestial Bodies – but to fully grasp the impact of these references and the beauty they add to the text, it’s worth doing some background reading. This literary technique invites the reader to become immersed into Omani culture – and, in turn, play a role in the interpretation of the text itself.
Rich literary tradition
Celestial Bodies is emblematic of the fact that Arab Gulf women are actively producing remarkable works of literature that are very much worth exploring. Worthwhile, not only to offer a glimpse into this society, but also in order to discover a rich literary tradition that has not been accessible to a wider audience beforehand.
In an interview published on the Man Booker International Prize website Alharthi says this about her book:
I hope this helps international readers discover that Oman has an active and talented writing community who live and work for their art … They take on sacrifices and struggles and find joy in writing, or in art, much the same way as anywhere else. This is something the whole world has in common.
Alharthi’s novel offers a glimpse of the world being experienced by women in the Arabian Gulf. I hope that Celestial Bodies will encourage more translations of works from the region, encouraging readers to experience for themselves the cultural riches on offer.
Why do we tell stories, and how are they crafted? In a new series, we unpick the work of the writer on both page and screen.
Decades ago, American journalist and screenwriter Dan Wakefield published Between the Lines: A reporter’s personal journey through public events. In terms of reflection and consideration, Wakefield was years ahead of his time. He writes of the “shadows that lurk behind the printed word … We journalists are trained by the custom and conventions of our craft to remain out of sight, pretending not to be there but simply to know”.
He then returns to many of his own pieces of journalism, and fills in the gaps – what he was feeling, seeing, doing, behind the scenes. What actually happened, as opposed to what was reported. This does not take away from the integrity of the original report but bolsters it in terms of completeness; they are now deeper, richer stories. Possibly “truer”.
Leigh Sales does this “between the lines” of the individual narratives in her latest (and third) book Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life.
Sales recounts the stories of seven ordinary Australians whose lives, in a heartbeat, became extraordinary and visible through traumatic incident; Stuart Diver, Louisa Hope, Walter Mikac, Hannah Richell, Michael Spence, James Scott and Juliet Darling.
What makes this book so valuable is that she interweaves discussion of some of her more dubious decision-making processes as a journalist, recognising the depth of her questionable actions. This is courageous writing, particularly from such a high profile professional.
But rather than framing Sales as untrustworthy, her self-effacement pertaining to ethical breaches helps us to see how decisions are made in the field, in the heat of reporting. How mistakes are made, in the name of getting the “story”. She writes shamefully of some of these decisions, but not necessarily regretfully; all were made as part of her own learning curve, manifesting as the skilled anchor we turn to nightly on our screens.
The power of disclosure
Sales’s book performs as part memoir/part trauma narrative/s/part investigation/part meta; and it is on page 99 that she begins her craft mea culpa. She writes:
When I look back at the mistakes I’ve made as a reporter including experiences that to this day make me feel ashamed, I can see that they were usually due to a failure of empathy […]
Authentic empathic journalistic disclosure is a means to garner more public trust, potentially portraying journalists as robust yet feeling professionals; as mortals with flaws; as fallible, but with a genuine belief in the integrity of their mission – informing the people, for the people.
Shining from the pages of Sales’ text is a self-effacing honesty, rarely accessed, around this type of journalistic thinking, craft and process. Included is not just a discussion of empathy, but demonstration of embodied empathic, on-the-ground interviewing.
The text is framed by trauma. Sales begins this hybrid narrative with her own: the breath-taking story of her near-death experience in 2014, during the emergency delivery of her second child; not only her near-death, but that of her tiny son, as well; and with his survival, the lingering probability of brain damage.
She then launches into well-formed and intimate discussions with the seven people whose stories form the basis of the book. This is Sales’ attempt at dealing with her own brush with death; a gathering of tales about resilience, fears and vulnerability.
The dominant craft on display here is her interviewing skills, and her ability to elicit authentic responses from her subjects. She writes:
I know how to craft a good line of questioning that helps [people] open up. I’m a strong listener and I follow up what people are saying.
These are the two most essential techniques a young journalist or writer can acquire – crafting the right questions and listening – and it takes practise and time to develop and evolve.
What Sales also does supremely well is narrate – intimately and closely, as if she is whispering in your ear. She begins the text with second person point of view (you), unusual from a journalist and difficult to sustain.
But she gets away with it as it helps convey her main theme – ordinary days turning extraordinary in a heartbeat – and she places us in her metaphoric shoes. She switches to singular third person narration (he); then to plural first person (we), before launching into her first person voice. This technique only works when it is apt – and it is apt here.
Her research into the neuroscience around trauma is in depth but accessible; and her quest to discover more about growth following traumatic pain is insightful and (dare I write without sounding mawkish) hopeful.
“What we see about shocking blindsides doesn’t tell us anything remotely like the whole story,” she writes. “Being struck by something awful is not the end of every good part of life”. For everyone, this is knowledge worth having.
The final chapter bookends the text with more of Sales’ own story – the breakdown of her marriage (succinctly and unsentimentally narrated) and an undiagnosed illness of her eldest son (we also learn that her youngest son has shown no sign of damage from his birth ordeal).
Sales tells us of callow mistakes made starting out as a journalist. It is with this hindsight and insight – a glimpse behind the maturing practice – where we sense both her ambition and elation for her assignments. Some she executes well, sometimes fluking it; in undertaking others, she clearly believes she made unethical choices.
But she does not lend herself the freedom of simply hiding behind youth, as she writes: “ … sadly, I can identify similar mistakes when I was a senior reporter”. It is in the candid telling of these fraught back stories that the humanity of Sales is made whole.
Not just the resolute grip of the interviewer on 7.30; nor fellow journalist Annabel Crabb’s best friend – clever, funny, playful – on their podcast Chat 10 Looks 3. But the woman, in love with story and storytelling, growing into her profession.
It is easy to write that empathy must be taught to our young journalists and writers; that it may be the key to subverting the disparaging distrust the public embraces towards industry.
But how to “teach” empathy? It has to be a discussion framed by ethics – the almighty notion of swapping shoes and walking in them. Stopping in the field, just stopping for a moment, and thinking about the person or story you are pursuing. Feeling what it must feel like to be them.
Do art and literature cultivate empathy?
Now we have an idiosyncratically Australian text, written by one of the most respected Australian journalists, to teach with; one that expounds honesty about poor ethical choices, and evidence of embodied empathic interviewing. Sales’ deep enmeshing with her interviewees does not undermine the rigour of her interrogation – she still asks the hard questions and mines deeply – and the interviewees always answer, with grace.
We hear and read the back and forth of the interview with her subjects; her reflections and asides set out in print. Would she be asking these questions in this way, if she had not suffered her own cataclysmic trauma with the birth of her second son? Perhaps – I think she was getting there.
Sales writes of the end of that year, 2014, and broadcasting the coverage of two incidents that vibrated throughout the nation, binding us collectively in their thrall: the public death of cricketer Phillip Hughes and the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney.
It was all getting a little too much, on the back of her son’s traumatic birth. There was just too much palpable pain adrift, and she no longer felt safe. So she imagined this book, and by using the tools of her trade, she interviewed and wrote until it was done.
Perhaps it is journalistic therapy – conceptually, it definitely began that way, Sales admits. She was looking to write her way out of aggregated pain and sorrow. But I believe the denouement of this text is her greatest gift – the demonstration of empathy not as antithesis to good story re-telling, but as integral.