Author Jokha Alharthi and translator Marilyn Booth have jointly won the Man Booker International Prize 2019 for Celestial Bodies, published by small Scottish indie Sandstone Press, with Alharthi the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the award.
The £50,000 prize, which celebrates the finest works of translated fiction from around the world, has been divided equally between its author and translator.
Sandstone m.d. Robert Davidson told The Bookseller that within minutes of the win he had authorised a reprint of Celestial Bodies that was Sandstone's "biggest ever print run", though he declined to specify numbers. "Jock Stein, who had a Scottish football team, used to say that just reaching the World Cup Final was like winning it. Today a small Scottish publisher has not only reached the World Cup Final, but [actually] won it," he celebrated.
Alharthi is the first female Omani novelist to be translated into English and the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prize. Booth, an American academic and translator who has translated many works of fiction from Arabic, holds the Khalid bin Abdallah Al Saud Chair for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at the Oriental Institute.
Celestial Bodies tells of family connections and history in the coming-of-age account of three Omani sisters. It is set against the backdrop of an evolving Oman, which is slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, at the crossroads of its complex present.
Judging panel chair Bettany Hughes called it "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."
Alharthi called the award win "a great honour", and acknowledged that the issue of slavery in Oman's recent past, tackled in the novel, was a "sensitive" one. "But literature is a platform to discuss sensitive issues," she said. "I hope my book opens a dialogue." Meanwhile Booth, noting that literature from the Gulf region was not well-known, said she had been so entranced by the novel that she had been determined not just that the book must be translated into English, but that she herself must be the person to do it.
Man Group c.e.o. Luke Ellis said: "On behalf of Man Group, I would like to congratulate Jokha Alharthi and Marilyn Booth, as well as each of the shortlisted authors and translators. As one of the first literary awards to celebrate the work of international authors and, in recent years, to celebrate fiction in translation, the Man Booker International Prize plays an invaluable role in encouraging a diversity of voice in fiction worldwide."
This year's international prize is the last to be sponsored by the Man Group, with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sir Michael Moritz's charitable foundation Crankstart taking over sponsorship in a five-year deal. Ellis said the company was "incredibly proud" to have sponsored the Booker and International Booker prizes for 18 years. He added: "As our sponsorship of the Booker Prizes draws to a close, I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the commendable work of the Booker Prize Foundation and to wish them the very best for the future."
Each shortlisted author and translator also received £1,000 for being shortlisted. The winner was announced by Hughes at a ceremony at the Roundhouse in London.
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