The 2019 Man Booker International Prize–winning book Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth, is a tale of firsts and serendipity. The first novel originally written in Arabic to win the Booker international prize (an award of £50,000 shared between author and translator) and the first book by an Omani woman to be translated into English, Celestial Bodies came to be published in English through a series of relationships and chance meetings.
Booth, a translator and Oxford University professor, says she first met Alharthi in 2010 at the University of Edinburgh, where Alharthi was completing her PhD in classical Arabic poetry. On a subsequent visit to Edinburgh, Alharthi gave Booth the novel she had published in Beirut. “I liked it,” Booth says, “and while I didn’t have a commission, I just wanted to translate it, which I’ve done before with other books.”
Alharthi recalls that even while she was studying literature, she wanted to write and had started the novel. “I have said sometimes that I began Celestial Bodies because while I was in Scotland for my PhD, I was homesick and remembering Oman,” she says. “And also the pace of change: Oman has changed rapidly, and it is what happens when things change that the novel considers.”
The book begins with three sisters in an Omani village and traces the family—as Booth writes in her translator’s introduction—“over three generations, shaped by the rapid social changes and consequent shifts in outlook that Oman’s populace have experienced across the twentieth century.” Seen though the lens of Asma, Khawla, and Mayya’s diverse reactions to the status quo, tradition is challenged in relationships between men and women, master and slave (slavery was only abolished in Oman in 1970), parents and children, and a shift from rural to city living, all of which reflect the upheaval in the country’s history.
Though Booth is a well-known translator, she says she wasn’t having any luck getting the book published until, at an event at Oxford, she met Wylie U.K. agent Charles Buchan and told him about it.
“Marilyn had by then secured a translation grant from the Anglo-Omani society,” Buchan says. “She shared the translation with me and later introduced me to Jokha.”
Buchan read it and “immediately wanted to reread it, to get to know it better,” he says, adding, “I think all readers, whether connected to publishing or not, fall into—sometimes unfortunate—reading patterns, and Celestial Bodies is, among so many other things, a novel that defies conventions that English-language readers might anticipate. It is also confident in its construction and brave in its use of narrative time, and it continues to fascinate me. As I believe I said to Marilyn, ‘What’s not to love?’ ”
Though Buchan submitted it widely, it occurred to him that Scottish publishers might be particularly interested because of Alharthi’s connection to Edinburgh. He sent it off to Sandstone, a small independent press, who told him that it would publish the novel “with energy and ambition.”
The contract with Sandstone was signed in May 2017 for world English rights, and, after what Booth says was a light edit by Kay Farrell, the book was published in the U.K. in June 2018.
When Celestial Bodies won the Man Booker International Prize in May 2019, Jonathan Lee, editor-in-chief of indie press Catapult (and a lauded author in his own right), says he was intrigued. “The book sounded interesting to me,” he recalls, “and we were looking to publish international fiction.” Lee notes that his interest was piqued by the idea of “the first Omani woman” to be translated into English. There are five million people in Oman, he tells me—roughly the same population of Ireland. “Think how many women writers are there.”
Lee was also interested in what the novel would show him, explaining that Celestial Bodies is a “window into a little-known world.” He mentions the thousands of books that cross his desk, noting that few of them appeal to both “head and heart.” This book, he says, has “literary craft and structure but with an emotional core.”
Lee acquired U.S. rights to Celestial Bodies at auction. According to Buchan, Sandstone arranged the contract with Catapult, which also acquired Alharthi’s second novel, Narinjah, which will be published in English as Bitter Orange. (Alharthi has also published story collections, a children’s book, and three novels in Arabic.)
Celestial Bodies publishes in the U.S. on October 15 and to date has sold in 14 territories in addition to the U.K. and U.S. Catapult’s marketing plans include independent bookseller outreach, a national media campaign, and academic and library promotion.
“My work is fiction and not a mirror image of Oman,” Alharthi says. “But I hope readers will see the country through new eyes and be interested in learning more about it. I write about women and families, but what I ultimately write about is the human condition.”