(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

BooksMarch 8, 2023

And your Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2023 finalists are…

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

The 44 longlisted books have been whittled down to a shortlist of 16. Thoughts provided below by books editor Claire Mabey and poet Louise Wallace. 

Let’s get right to it. We’ve got 12 publishers across 16 titles which is an indication of health for our publishing sector. We’ve got previous predictions blown right out of the water; and others landing nicely in place with just a few surprises as we go. Asterisks means it’s a debut and in the running for best first book award. Winners are announced in May at a live ceremony at the Auckland Writers Festival.

Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction ($64,000 prize)

Better the Blood by Michael Bennett (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue) (Simon & Schuster)

Kāwai: For Such a Time as This by Monty Soutar (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki, Ngāti Kahungunu) (Bateman Books)

Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders (The Cuba Press)

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

I got momentarily sidetracked by the news that John Mitchinson, publisher and host of the best books podcast ever Backlisted, will assist the three Aotearoa judges to pick the winner. As a fangirl of Backlisted and of John (who wrote this poignant and insightful piece on Salman Rushdie) it’s a fun fact that he’ll be lending his astonishingly well-read eye to four tip top Aotearoa novels.

Anywho. My predictions for this category were waaaayyy off. Except for Chidgey. Had Chidgey not made it I’d have run down the street naked but my neighbours have been spared. This time. However, I’m not displeased. This is a fine pack of four accomplished, complex novels and a refreshing illumination of historical fiction, crime and rural stories.

While I’m bummed for Coco Solid’s How to Loiter in a Turf War, I’m hoping that this widely acclaimed novel will at least receive the best first book award in this category. The rules for those awards are: “If there are no debut authors shortlisted in a category, the best first book award will be presented to a first time author longlisted in that category. If there are debuts longlisted in a category, judges make a selection from the books submitted in that category. There is one BFB prize presented per category.”

I’m extra delighted for Cristina Sanders’ rip-roaring Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant and publisher The Cuba Press: an indie triumph alongside Te Herenga Waka University Press who are not unused to triumphing, but who are small and mighty nonetheless.

Stephanie Johnson, convenor of judges for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, says: “Two stellar historical novels rival for their portrayal of lost worlds, one set in eighteenth-century Aotearoa, the other on a nineteenth-century sub-Antarctic island. And in the other two finalists, contemporary New Zealand, urban and rural, is vividly and memorably evoked in tightly written crime and through the eyes of a wild but insightful bird.”

In terms of the top prize come May, my pick is still with Chidgey’s The Axeman’s Carnival. This writer has gone from strength to strength and now sits among the most prolific and masterful novelists working today. I think Tama the magpie will be hard to beat (and likely a very sore loser if his twitter profile is anything to go by).

Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry ($12,000)

Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised by Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Āti Awa, Taranaki) (Auckland University Press)

People Person by Joanna Cho (Te Herenga Waka University Press)*

Sedition by Anahera Maire Gildea (Ngāti Tukorehe) (Taraheke | Bush Lawyer)*

We’re All Made of Lightning by Khadro Mohamed (We Are Babies Press, Tender Press)*

If last year’s Ockhams poetry shortlist was “surprises ahoy”, then this year’s is “surprises ahoy-hoy”. Moving from the longlist to the shortlist, many of the collections I considered frontrunners have now gone. But hey, spoiler alert – awards are subjective! And here, the judges have created an extremely level playing field, with three of the four poets up for best first book. 

Joanna Cho’s luminous People Person feels filled with magic, a tender, funny book that makes its own rules. Khadro Mohamed’s We’re All Made of Lightning is a sensory and transformative journey – the poet feeling their way through perhaps unanswerable questions. Like Cho and Mohamed, Alice Te Punga Somerville plays with form and fractures (even footnotes), in an analysis of power and those who hold it (or who may think they do). Anahera Maire Gildea’s Sedition interrogates neocolonisation, writing with anger, strength and sadness, and like Somerville, Gildea hosts her readers in a room filled with voices – past, present and future.

All women of colour, these shortlisted poets have a huge amount to say and it is our job to listen. All four collections contain standout poems, moments, lines and language that could carry them across the finish line in first place. My feeling is that Te Punga Somerville and Gildea’s collections have the complexity and nuance to mean they will be vying for the top prize, but as someone with a proven dismal track record for making successful picks, I’d recommend supporting these shortlisted poets (and your local bookstore) and deciding for yourself!

Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction ($12,000)

Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand by Nick Bollinger (Auckland University Press)

Robin White: Something is Happening Here edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga (Te Papa Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)

Secrets of the Sea: The Story of New Zealand’s Native Sea Creatures by Robert Vennell (HarperCollins)

Te Motunui Epa by Rachel Buchanan (Taranaki, Te Ātiawa) (Bridget Williams Books)

My predictions were off by one. But phwoar, this category is still such a nail-biter. These books are all astonishing: the production! the evident literal years of research and thought put into them page after page!

Jared Davidson, convenor of judges for the Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction, says the innovative design and compelling storytelling found in this this year’s shortlist have redefined what an illustrated non-fiction work can be: “Zine-like textures on uncoated stock, elegant typography across space and time, treasure-troves of littoral illustrations [meaning relating to shore or lake] and taonga tuku iho that give voice to their travels are signs of a confident moment in book production. Nothing here is pretty-for-pretty’s sake: visual excellence amplifies the immensely relevant and engaging content of these original books.”

My pick is still with Te Motunui Epa by Rachel Buchanan (Taranaki, Te Ātiawa) (Bridget Williams Books), an epic story of taonga traveling the world and back again. It’s extraordinary, enriching and unique. But I think every one of these books would sit well in any library home or otherwise and deserve this second round of celebration.  

General Non-Fiction Award ($12,000 prize)

A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tūpuna by Melinda Webber (Ngāti Kahu, Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whakaue) and Te Kapua O’Connor (Ngāti Kurī, Pohūtiare) (Auckland University Press)

Downfall: The Destruction of Charles Mackay by Paul Diamond (Ngāti Hauā, Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) (Massey University Press)

Grand: Becoming my Mother’s Daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin, Penguin Random House)*

The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi by Ned Fletcher (Bridget Williams Books)*

So this is the category that had the extra long longlist (14 instead of 10) in recognition of the amount of non-fiction that Aotearoa produces. And I know I’ve said it but I will say it again: I don’t understand how such wildly different forms (e.g. memoir versus academic treatise) can be judged alongside each other. The need for an extra longlist maybe points to needing a whole other category (Creative Non-Fiction). 

In saying that, my predictions were friggen close: off by one. I’m sad for Dame Fiona Kidman and So Far, For Now which is a haunting collection of personal essays. But this shortlist is a cracker. I’d have been astonished if either of Grand by Noelle McCarthy or A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tūpuna hadn’t made the list. Two very different but important books that turn our attentions to whakapapa, and the narratives written in our histories near and far.

Delighted that Paul Diamond’s moving labour of love, Downfall: The Destruction of Charles Mackay is here (reviewed on The Spinoff by Victor Rodger); and as soon as I received Ned Fletcher’s The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi my bookwitch senses whispered “awardssssss”. It’s simply a mammoth piece of work, astonishing in depth and scope (hats off also to Morgan Godfery who reviewed it for us).

Anna Rawhiti-Connell (The Spinoff’s very own), convenor of judges for the General Non-Fiction Award, says the diversity of form in the shortlist showcases the breadth of non-fiction writing in New Zealand, and a mastery of craft: “Each finalist offers an evolution and an innovation – whether it be in form and style, command of language and story-telling or in what they contribute to our shared knowledge and understanding of ourselves and each other. They are all books people should read, and importantly, they are books that fulfil the promise of reward for doing so.”

Well said. Lots of rewards: go forth and read them and see if you can pick a winner. Then let me know. My instincts are still saying Grand by Noelle McCarthy but in this category, I think it’s anyone’s game. These books are magnificent.

Congratulations to all of the authors, designers, editors, proofreaders, publicists and publishers and bow down to the judges who are making the hard calls for the big day come May:

This year’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards judges are: bestselling author, critic and creative writing teacher Stephanie Johnson (convenor); editor and literature assessor John Huria (Ngāi Tahu, Muaūpoko, Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, Ngāti Rangi); and Rotorua bookseller Jemma Morrison (Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction); Dunedin poet, author and creative writing tutor Diane Brown (convenor); poet and kaiako Serie Barford; and Wellington poet and Grimshaw-Sargeson Fellow Gregory Kan (Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry); award-winning writer, historian and archivist Jared Davidson (convenor); writer and curator Dr Anna-Marie White (Te Ātiawa); and veteran television producer Taualeo’o Stephen Stehlin MNZM (Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction); writer and award-winning columnist Anna Rawhiti-Connell (convenor); prize-winning author, academic and researcher Alison Jones; and historian Professor Te Maire Tau (Ūpoko of Ngāi Tūāhuriri, a hapu of Ngāi Tahu) (General Non-Fiction Award).

International Fiction judge John Mitchinson (UK) is a writer and publisher, the co-founder of Unbound, the crowdfunding platform dedicated to books, and co-host of Backlisted, one of the world’s most popular book podcasts. Before that he helped create the BBC TV show QI. He grew up in New Zealand and has keen interest in its arts and culture.

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