Ilham Essalih recommends ‘Celestial Bodies’ by Jokha Alharthi
“Reading is my entire life: I read everywhere, I read anytime, I study books, I review books on my Instagram, I write about them for publications and I even make videos about them now! Books are little Pandora's boxes full of wonders that can transport you to any world you choose.”
Not written for a white audience
Ilham Essalih is a Belgian-Arab book reviewer and PhD candidate in Postcolonial Literature. Her research focuses on the gendered dimensions of postcolonial trauma in the literature of Africa and the Arab world. Her pick: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi.
— Why did you choose this book for 1 City, 19 Books?
Because it gorgeously captures some of my favourite characteristics and themes in literature: an intergenerational story featuring madness and slavery. Celestial Bodies is the first ever novel from the Gulf to be shortlisted for and to win the Man Booker International Prize. It’s set in a small village in Oman and it tells the story of a family over several generations. It’s a book that doesn’t feel like it was written for a white audience which is rather refreshing.
— Is the success of this novel a hopeful signal for diversity within the publishing industry?
I don’t really like to talk about ‘diversity’ because it just feels like giving a bit of spotlight to a bunch of people who are anything other than white (and/or non-queer) and ticking off a box for satisfaction. I don’t exactly care for ‘diversity’ in publishing because I think the industry is still extremely white-oriented and it will probably still remain so for a very long time. Last year the prestigious Man Booker had joint winners: Bernardine Evaristo and her Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood with her Testaments. Atwood is indeed a grand writer (see Alias Grace or Oryx & Crake), but The Testaments reads like a young adult piece of fan fiction while Girl, Woman, Other is a gorgeous masterpiece.
— To whom would you recommend this book and why?
I would recommend it to people who aren’t lazy readers and who aren’t expecting a straightforward story going from A to Z. Be prepared to think, to look up words and concepts if you’re not familiar with the culture. It will be worth it, trust me.
Celestial Bodies is a pretty complex story both aesthetically and thematically. The narrative perspective shifts from Abdallah (one of the central characters) to other characters in the story and it goes back and forth between past and present. It can be very confusing because of the many characters, the lack of clear quotation marks and explanations for Arabic words, the shifts in perspective and time. On top of that, it tackles difficult and uncomfortable themes such as abuse, slavery, suicide and trauma which can make most readers squeamish. But it works: Alharthi created a brilliant page-turner that is mesmerising, captivating and lyrical.
— Is there a line or a passage that struck a chord?
Yes – my favourite passages were the ones showcasing madness in some of the former slaves. One of them is Habib, a Baluchi slave, who leaves the household as soon as he is no longer a slave, because he cannot bare to stay in the country that put him in bondage. A passage reads: ‘Before he fled, Habib told Zarifa that songs were the only thing in his memory to keep his language alive for him. That's why he sang. If he didn't have songs in there, all the hollow spaces would be filled with rage.’
The newly acquired freedom seems to be associated to madness, as if the slaves weren't able to mentally cope with their freedom. Habib would scream in the middle of the night, ‘We are free. They stole us, and then they sold us! (...) Free! They did us wrong, they destroyed us. Free!’
— Why is reading important to you?
It’s my entire life: I read everywhere, I read anytime, I study books, I review books on my Instagram, I write about them for publications and I even make videos about them now! Books are little Pandora’s boxes full of wonders that can transport you to any world you choose.
— How do you experience being a public reader through your website and Instagram account?
I don’t balance my reading for work and for pleasure – my reading is terribly chaotic most of the time. I can read 3 books in a week or I can take 3 weeks to read 1 – there’s no in between. Being a public reader is fun and exciting but it also comes with a bit of pressure from having to read and review books for publishers, and then there’s also the inner pressure of trying to stay up to date with all the new books. I used to care about those things a lot but I’ve learnt to relax about it and follow my own pace.
— What does your ideal summer day off in Brussels look like?
I would have a late brunch either at an Arab place around Molenbeek or Stalingrad or one of the trendy spots around Sablon or Châtelain, I would walk to one of the Pêle-Mêles to hunt for second hand books, I would attend an author talk (they are so scarce in Brussels though!), I would sit down at a coffee shop to write a book review and take book pictures and I would have Indian or Thai dinner at Bailli! I don’t really have a fixed reading spot in the city, I’m more of a stay-at-home reader. If I had to pick, I would go for Café Capitale or one of the Presse cafés.
“The first ever novel from the Gulf to be shortlistend for and to win the Booker International Prize.
It's a book that doesn't feel like it was written for a white audience which is rather refreshing.”