Diana, Brannavan, and the others: announcing the 2018 Ockham national book awards shortlist

We reveal the shortlist of this year’s national book awards.

Magazine writer Diana Wichtel, Wellington novelist Brannavan Gnanalingam and some other authors have made it onto the shortlist of the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

The Spinoff Review of Books names these two authors straight off the bat and ahead of everyone else because we rate their books as the two very best titles published in New Zealand last year. Wichtel’s family memoir Driving to Treblinka was named the best book of 2017 at the Spinoff in December; and Gnanalingam’s refugee story Sodden Downstream is our pick to win the fiction award, which comes with a handsome $50,000 prize. Winners of the other categories pick up $10,000.

Some ado to follow. Right now, here’s the shortlist. Note the sensitive graphic which features a great big X marking the six books on the longlist which didn’t make the cut.

Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize

  • The New Animals by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press)
  • Salt Picnic by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press)
  • Sodden Downstream by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson)
  • Baby by Annaleese Jochems (Victoria University Press)

Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non Fiction

  • Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885 by Michael Belgrave (Auckland University Press)
  • Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds by Anne Salmond (Auckland University Press)
  • Drawn Out: A Seriously Funny Memoir by Tom Scott (Allen & Unwin)
  • Driving to Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father by Diana Wichtel (Awa Press)

Poetry Award

  • Anchor Stone by Tony Beyer (Cold Hub Press)
  • Night Horse by Elizabeth Smither (Auckland University Press)
  • Rāwāhi by Briar Wood (Anahera Press)
  • The Yield by Sue Wootton (Otago University Press)

Illustrated Non-Fiction Award

  • Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds by Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins (Bridget Williams Books)
  • Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History by Philip Simpson (Auckland University Press)
  • Gordon Walters: New Vision by Zara Stanhope (commissioning editor), Lucy Hammonds, Laurence Simmons, Julia Waite (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and Dunedin Public Art Gallery)
  • The Face of Nature: An Environmental History of the Otago Peninsula by Jonathan West (Otago University Press)

And so to the some ado. The Spinoff Review of Books wishes to express four mild remarks about the judges.

First, we are of the firm conviction that the judges of the illustrated non-fiction award (Barbara Brookes, Matariki Williams, Kim Paton) are out of their goddamn minds for failing to include Good-bye Maoriland, the sumptuous, cleverly illustrated book about New Zealand music in World War I, by Chris Bourke. This omission is baffling. Still, congratulations to all four finalists; our tip to win is Totara, by Golden Bay tree man Phil Simpson.

Second, we humbly submit that the judges of the poetry award (Alison Wong, Robert Sullivan, Michael Harlow) ought to be deported for failing to include Tightrope by Selina Tusitala Marsh, who is only the poet laureate, who is only top of the bill at the opening night of the 2018 New Zealand Festival’s Writers and Readers programme, and who is only the author of the most exciting collection of verse published in New Zealand last year. This omission is downright stupid. Still, congratulations to all four finalists; our tip to win is Night Horse, by she of the glittering, chilling image, New Plymouth writer Elizabeth Smither.

Third, we recommend that the judges of the non-fiction award (Ella Henry, Toby Manhire, Philip King) take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror for failing to include A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington by Redmer Yska. Did they really need to favour the latest bunch of old footnotes by Dame Anne Salmond, one of New Zealand’s most unreadable authors, at the expense of Yska’s original and exciting psychogeography? This omission is a black mark on their judging. Still, congratulations to three finalists; our tip to win is of course Driving to Treblinka by Diana Wichtel.

Diana Wichtel and Brannavan Gnanalingam

Generations of Listener readers have regarded Wichtel as one of the best writers in New Zealand.  Her profiles and television reviews are always funny, always closely observed, always beautifully composed. The mystery these past 20, 30 years was why she didn’t write a book. Maybe she was lazy. Finally, though, she produced Driving to Treblinka, a profound meditation on grief, which also allows for dark comedy and an expert journalist’s ear for a good quote. It’s a magnificent book of non-fiction and as such it raises an important question that we wish to put to the wallahs who run the Ockham national book awards: how come the big loot goes to fiction? Why does the best novel get $50,000? Shouldn’t the best book of any stripe get that much? Acorn, as the generous sponsors, stump up the cash; do they have to give it to fiction? One of the great literary advances of the past few years has been that genre known as creative non-fiction, or long-form. It was quite plain that the best book published in New Zealand in 2016 was Can You Tolerate This?, the essay collection by Ashleigh Young; and surely Driving to Treblinka achieved more with language and story-telling than any other book published in New Zealand in 2017. O wallahs who run the Ockham New Zealand book awards! Time for a word in the Acorn ear; time for a change. PS: we also request that the Ockhams reinstate two categories which were staples of national book awards in the past – best reviewer, and best review section.

Our fourth and final remark on the matter of what to do with the Ockham judging panel is that we say unto the judges of the fiction award (Jenna Todd, Philip Matthews, Anna Smaill): huzzah! They all ought to be taken on a limousine ride to a fancy restaurant and given presents, perhaps also a cake. Their shortlist is the immaculate selection. We have carped on about the omissions of other judges; with fiction, the main point of interest is not what’s missing but for one book in particular that they’ve included – Sodden Downstream by Brannavan Gnanalingam. Judges in years past would more likely have been too fucking chicken to include this raw, energetic, sometimes artless story about a Sri Lankan cleaning woman’s desperate attempt to get from the Hutt Valley to downtown Wellington on the night of a storm. It’s not the sort of thing that Victoria University Press would publish. Reviews were rare. (The Spinoff didn’t review it.) But it’s a wonderfully imaginative portrait of a New Zealand underclass, and makes for a fast, mesmerising read. We hope it wins.

The awards ceremony is on May 15. The Spinoff Review of Books will report live, undercover, avoiding most of the judges, banging on the tabletop in support of Gnanalingam, Simpson, Smither, and, above all, the best of the bunch, Wichtel.


Sodden Downstream by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson, $29), Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History by Philip Simpson (Auckland University Press, $75), Night Horse by Elizabeth Smither (Auckland University Press, $24.99) and Driving to Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father by Diana Wichtel (Awa Press, $45) are available at Unity Books.


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