Jokha Alharthi: ‘It is dangerous to see fiction as documentation’

On the eve of the publication of her newest novel in English, Jokha Alharthi is nervous. Not about the reception of her work from her, Bitter Orange Tree, but over the possibility that I will misrepresent her. “I’ve seen shocking headlines [about me] put on an article”, she says. “It makes me hold back from doing interviews.”

This nervousness is surprising from someone who has now spent three years in the spotlight, having won the 2019 International Booker prize for her novel heavenly bodysuits. Alharthi was the first Arab to win the award, which was shared with the novel’s translator, Marilyn Booth. The book, which centered on the lives of three sisters in Alharthi’s native Oman, has been translated into 22 languages ​​and has won plaudits around the world.

Speaking to me via video link from an American hotel room, in advance of the US release of Bitter Orange Tree, she describes winning the prize as a “great honour” but admits that while the attention has been good, it has also been “overwhelming”. “It does put a huge pressure on your coming work,” she says.

Still, the length of time between original publication and translation has left her about the philosophical expectations of the literary world. heavenly bodysuits was published in Arabic in 2010 and received good reviews from Arab critics at the time, but it did not become famous until it won the Booker nearly a decade later. She has just published another novel in Arabic, Harir al-Ghazalaand is hoping it will be translated, too.

“That [delay] taught me to be patient,” says Alharthi, who is an associate professor of Arabic language and literature at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, and has now published four novels in Arabic, as well as several non-fiction works on Arabic literature. “I believe that every book has its right reader. They could come now or could come later. Hopefully, Bitter Orange Tree will find that reader too.”

Published in Arabic in 2016 and also translated by Booth, Bitter Orange Treelike heavenly bodysuitsis set in Oman and its characters are shaped by the profound social and political changes the country went through after the second world war.

Once a wealthy trading nation with an empire that extended to the east African coast, Oman became a provincial backwater during the 20th century. It was ruled for nearly 40 years by Sultan Said bin Taimur, a traditionalist who shunned modernity and exerted personal control over almost every decision of state. When he was ousted by his son in 1970, the country had barely any paved roads, most of its population was illiterate, and poverty and malnutrition were endemic.

With modest oil and gas reserves — at least compared with its Gulf neighbors — the country modernized rapidly under Taimur’s son, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, and life changed profoundly within two generations.

This history is deftly woven into Alharthi’s fiction. Bint Aamir, the central character in Bitter Orange Tree, lives through the sometimes bewildering shift from a traditional rural society to a prosperous modern state. Illiterate and blind in one eye, she has never married and has lived most of her life in the household of a relative of her. Seen through the eyes of her granddaughter de ella, Zuhour, who is studying at an unnamed UK university, she is both a link to a disappearing past and a victim of tradition.

“She went on sitting there looking as she had looked, it seemed, for all eternity: in her bright-coloured cotton tarha and the black tunic that fell below her knees. . . She lived with us, that’s all. She did not own the building, or the land, or even us. I think of her as my grandmother, but we weren’t really her grandchildren of her, ”Alharthi writes.

In many ways Bint Aamir’s life is tragic, but she is saved from poverty and given a home thanks to family ties that functioned as an informal welfare system. Alharthi’s own upbringing of her in a large extended family — she has eight sisters and four brothers — helped her understand such women and their lives of her during what she says was “a very difficult time in Oman”.

Born in 1978, less than a decade after Taimur was overthrown, Alharthi grew up during Oman’s modernization. Schools had opened for boys and girls, and because she was bright, when she was five her father claimed she was two years older so that she could enroll before the minimum age of seven. “He was a strong believer in education,” she recalls. All of her siblings de ella either hold or are studying for postgraduate degrees.

“I grew up among a lot of relatives [and] I got the chance to listen to different kinds of women—educated, non-educated, old and young. The variety in such a small community was astonishing,” she recalls. “You are going from someone who never held a book in her hand from ella to someone who has her PhD from Cambridge or Oxford. And there could be a very strong woman, even though she’s not educated, and a weak woman who has degrees and all the choices that her grandmother de ella did n’t have.

There are echoes of Alharthi’s life in Bitter Orange Tree. Like Zuhour, Alharthi studied in the UK, earning a PhD in classical Arabic literature at the University of Edinburgh. “It was freezing!” she remarks. But she insists that any parallels between her and her characters are coincidental.

“I don’t think I’m looking deliberately for inspiration by living my experiences,” she says. “Otherwise I would be too busy observing life instead of living it. I just had these experiences of traveling and friendships, and then they came to me again like fragments of memories or feelings or ideas.”

This distillation of history and experience into fiction can sometimes be forgotten by readers of novels that describe an unfamiliar society. Alharthi admits it disturbs her that many non-Arabs see heavenly bodysuits as an educational book about Oman.

“I’m not judging people,” she says diplomatically. “We do learn about societies by reading their literature, but at the same time, it’s fiction. For me, receiving fiction as a kind of documentation is a bit dangerous and ignores the aesthetic elements in the work. . . the imagination and the play with time and reality and place.”

“Of course, we can’t deny that we learn about Japan from [Yasunari] Kawabata, for example,” she continues. “But if I want to understand the society in Japan, it is the society that Kawabata wrote about or the society that [Haruki] Murakami wrote about? I think fiction is a parallel reality. It’s like a mirror in an amusement park. It magnifies things, it shrinks things.”

Alharthi has also been forced to defend her work from literalist readers in Oman. She faced social media threats and was accused of damaging the country’s national image for her frank portrayal of slavery in Heavenly Bodies. The practice was only banned in Oman when Bin Taimur’s rule ended in 1970, and the topic remains delicate — although she notes the furore came only after the book garnered international attention in the wake of the Booker prize.

“People were angry,” she recalls. “But slavery happened all over the world at different times in history, and it goes back thousands of years. We have to deal with it as human beings first. It’s part of our history and we have to look at that,” she says.

The criticism perhaps explains Alharthi’s initial nervousness during our conversation, now dissipated after an hour-long chat that ranged from her views on literature and history, to how social media affects children (she has three ranging from four to 17 years old), whether they live in Oman or the UK.

But as she prepares to sign off, Alharthi returns to her social media detractors with quiet defiance. “I write about things that I want to write about, and things that are important to me,” she says. “I’m trying to be true to myself. I don’t want to get attention, I just want to write because of the pleasure of doing it.”

Bitter Orange Tree by Jokha Alharthi, Simon & Schuster £14.99/Catapult $26, 224 pages

Siona Jenkins is the FT’s Brexit editor and deputy UK news editor

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Cafe

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.