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Book News: Pakistani Civil Servant Who Published Debut Novel At 79 Dies

Novelist Jamil Ahmad. His wife, Helga, is in the background.
Jim Wildman
Novelist Jamil Ahmad. His wife, Helga, is in the background.

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • Pakistani writer Jamil Ahmad, who published his debut novel, The Wandering Falcon, when he was 79, has died "after a long illness," his publisher said. He was 83. Ahmad spent decades as a civil servant in the country's tribal northwest, experiences he drew upon for the book, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. He wrote the novel in the 1970s, but in his words, it "hibernated" for 40 years before finding a publisher. Ahmad said he wrote it because "I want people to understand that tribes are not savage." In a review, NPR's Steve Inskeep wrote: "The author makes us travel with him. We feel as though we ourselves are with the miserable soldiers posted in Pakistan's western desert, where an annual sandstorm lasts a third of the year. We are with the nomads who annually drive their herds of animals across the international border, only to be baffled and enraged when they learn the border is now to be enforced. We are witnessing the plans being made for a kidnapping in North Waziristan, a region better known to news consumers as a hideout for Afghan militants. Later, we ourselves can see a snow-capped mountain in the moonlight — and high on that slope, the silhouettes of ice-cutters, who for many years have been hacking away at glaciers to bring some refrigeration to the valleys below. The book offers a rich picture of the 'mountainous, lawless tribal areas' we have previously known mainly for bullets and bombs."
  • Kenyan author Okwiri Oduor has won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing with her story "My Father's Head." At the awards ceremony, judge Jackie Kay called the story "subtle, tender and moving," adding that "it is a story you want to return to the minute you finish it." The story begins: "I had meant to summon my father only long enough to see what his head looked like, but now he was here and I did not know how to send him back."
  • Scandal is afoot in the small (yet mighty) poetry community of North Carolina. Gov. Pat McCrory appointed a self-published state employee as the new poet laureate, prompting significant pushback from the state's literary community. His choice, Valerie Macon, a Department of Health and Human Services employee, was chosen without input from the North Carolina Arts Council, which normally advises the governor. North Carolina writer Richard Krawiec told the News & Observer, "Valerie Macon is a beginner in her poetry career. Laureate is for people with national and statewide reputations. If you don't honor that basic criteria of literary excellence and laureates being poets at the top of their game, then what's the purpose of the laureate position?" Macon, for her part, seems to be keeping her head down: "I'll work hard to be the best poet laureate I possibly can for the citizens of North Carolina," she told the newspaper.
  • In The New Republic, Adelle Waldman writes about her education in reading: "Once I learned how to read nineteenth-century (and some eighteenth-century) novels — that is, became accustomed to the language, stopped mistaking its seeming formality for graveness, and began to read in earnest, i.e., not like a pompous asshole (you know, the kind who reads the thing at arms' length, only to search for evidence to bolster this or that pre-existing theory, and misses the heart) — the books began to teach me more than I ever expected, more than I ever thought there was to learn."
  • The magnificent Nadine Gordimer, many of whose books were banned in apartheid-era South Africa, died Sunday at the age of 90. In an interview with NPR's Lynn Neary, Gordimer's publisher Jonathon Galassi said, "She will go down in history as a great writer about human relations — race, sex, politics, class. And I think she'll be read forever." In an interview with The Paris Review, Gordimer said: "Life is so apparently amorphous. But as soon as you burrow down this way or that ... you know Goethe's maxim? 'Thrust your hand deep into life, and whatever you bring up in it, that is you, that is your subject.' I think that's what writers do."
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    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.
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