The link below is to an article reporting on the establishment of the Turjuman Award in the United Arab Emirates for works translated from the Arabic language.
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.
The links below are to articles reporting on the new sponsor for the Booker Prize.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the winners of the German Geisteswissenschaften International Nonfiction Translation (GINT) award.
The link below is to an article that reports on outrage in France over a book award winner – a self-published book winner on Amazon.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the new ‘Comedy Women in Print Prize.
The links below are to articles reporting on the renaming of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
For more visit:
The links below are to articles reporting on the dropping of the Laura Ingalls Wilder name from a children’s book award over racism concerns – the prize was changed from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
For more visit:
Arts and culture are part of the broad subset of economic activities that are afforded special treatment – usually within the ambit of a government ministry – by some claim to special circumstances or importance. Defence, transport infrastructure, sports and education are other examples. What these sectors have in common is the claim that they produce public goods, or experience substantial market failure, justifying public support.
In this view, the problem with the arts and cultural economy is on the supply side. If left to the market, too few resources will be devoted to arts and cultural production. Hence government support is necessary to arrive at a socially optimal level of arts and cultural production.
But a different way of understanding the problems in the economics of arts and culture is from the perspective of the consumer (not the producer). Here the problem is simply that choice is hard because quality is uncertain. Markets can fail when producers lack the incentives to produce enough exciting new work, but markets can also fail because consumers don’t know how to choose over the set of new things, and find it easier to choose nothing. That is, they stay away.
By definition, art produces something novel and unique. This is something that economists call an experience good. You only know what you think of it after you’ve consumed it. This means that demand and purchase occurs before you know whether you will like something. Markets fail here because they don’t carry enough information.
Market-making in these industries invariably involves creating mechanisms to deal with the quality uncertainty problem. Often the economic success of a sub-sector depends upon the extent to which it can solve this problem.
There are several such mechanisms. One is a minimum quality standard, of the sort imposed through industrial regulations, licenses or certifications. These are used extensively in restaurant and tourism to signal minimum cleanliness, safety or service. Another is the use of a brand, which functions as a reputational hostage. Publishing Imprints and Galleries use this mechanism. Another mechanism is social network markets, where the pooling of the choices of other consumers fill in the information gaps. Box office sales and consumer reviews are examples of such.
But another important mechanism is awards. Awards are characterised by disinterested expert assessment of quality. Indeed, industries with substantial quality uncertainty problems (e.g. wine, movies, architecture, advertising, science, complex engineering) also tend to have high profile, high prestige awards (e.g. the Academy Awards for film, the Emmy’s for television).
So awards matter. But how do they actually work? And do they work differently in different industries?
A new study by Erwin Dekker and Marielle De Jong, both cultural economists from Erasmus University in the Netherlands, has examined a long and deep new data set on book awards in three countries: the US, France and the Netherlands. Their new paper called What Do Book Awards Signal? alights on a surprising finding, namely that book awards don’t work the same way that, as a prime comparison, movie awards work.
The basic difference is that with movie awards there is a relatively strong correlation between the assessments of different award juries (say Cannes, Sundance and the Oscars), and between these awards and popular consumer perceptions of quality, as measured with audience ratings. Relatively strong here means on the order of 50% correlation, which still leaves a lot of room for disagreement.
But with books, the overlap between different expert assessments of quality, i.e. consensus of expert opinion, is much lower: Dekker and De Jong find that it is 10% in the US, 7% in the Netherlands and just 3% in France.
So it seems that award winning books do not represent expert consensus about quality. So what are book awards doing? Dekker and De Jong suggest, following the work of Lucien Karpik, that book awards are signalling not a shared consensus on quality, but a judgement of distinctiveness.
Indeed, such awards work to precisely signal that a particular award winning book will not correspond to a common opinion assessment of quality.
An award winning book carries the signal that the reader will be consuming more than just a good book, but something more precious in a social context, namely a book of distinction, a quality that then carries over to the reader.
Why do book awards work this way? One reason is that books require more investment (i.e. time) than do movies. A second reason is that many more people need to agree that a movie is good through the production process in order for it to be made at all, so higher expert consensus is more likely.
Suppose now you’re a public benefactor of the arts and culture, or specifically that you were Mitch Fifield, Australia’s Arts Minister. One thing you can do is direct subsidy. That’s the producer-side market failure model. But while that makes the recipients happy, it doesn’t actually solve the quality uncertainty problem. The risk with that strategy is that all you’ll do is make some producers happy and leave the consumers of arts and culture no better off at all.
To solve that problem, consider setting up an award. Or rather, another new type of award. Can there be too many awards? Probably. But we are nowhere near that margin yet, and certainly not with high distinctiveness arts such as books, theatre, and dance. And the fun thing is you even get the legacy effect when you name the award after yourself.
The 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award has been won by the debut novel of Anna Funder – ‘All That I Am.’