A collage on a gold background: five authors, smiling, and five book covers in an arc above them. Also, one of the authors is holding a black cat.
The big winners at the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Also featuring cat: L-R Tusiata Avia, Monique Fiso, Tā Tīmoti Kāretu, Vincent O'Sullivan and Airini Beautrais (Design: Tina Tiller)

Surprise! Airini Beautrais has won the Acorn, and other big news from the Ockham book awards

Moments ago, the major prizes at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards were announced. Books editor Catherine Woulfe and poetry editor Chris Tse respond. 

First, a bow from the newly-crowned winners:

Airini Beautrais has won the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction and $57,000 for her collection of short stories, Bug Week (Victoria University Press). 

Vincent O’Sullivan has won the general non-fiction award and $10,000 for his book, The Dark is Light Enough: Ralph Hotere A Biographical Portrait (Penguin Random House NZ). 

Monique Fiso has won the Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for illustrated non-fiction and $10,000, for Hiakai: Modern Māori Cuisine (Godwit, Penguin Random House NZ).

Tusiata Avia has won the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry and $10,000 for her collection The Savage Coloniser Book (Victoria University Press).

Tā Tīmoti Kāretu won Te Mūrau o te Tuhi, a discretionary Māori Language Award, and $10,000, for Mātāmua ko te Kupu! (Auckland University Press). 

A collage of books and authors who made the shortlist of the 2021 Ockhams

Your 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards finalists (Images: Supplied)

Books editor Catherine Woulfe writes:

This is the last line of the last story in Bug Week, the line that follows you around after: 

All I can do is go and take my place among the women. 

The story is called “A quiet death”. After a dozen stories exploring the female experience, this one operates as a perfect coda. A woman wakes in a hospital bed. She is riddled with cancer. She thinks of her wife, and their kids, and the simple small goodness of being at home. And then she dies, and watches the doctor who euthanised her “joyfully fucking” her corpse. 

The afterworld is an auditorium full of women. It is reassuring, safe, “body-warm, like a womb”. But also: Beautrais makes the air in there hum with power. She makes arriving feel like bitter-won triumph. 

When I read that story and certain others in this book (especially “Trashing the flowers”, about a middle-class woman escaping her violent partner), I think of the essay that Beautrais wrote for us about the 10-year genesis of Bug Week:

She wrote: “I came into my literary adulthood gagging on the metaphorical dick of endless stories about professors having mid-life crises and sleeping with their students.”

And: “I felt compelled to write about the things I wrote about, and that included rape and intimate partner violence. I felt that my place in the literary ecosystem was strongly affected by the fact that I was a woman – a woman in her thirties, a single mother in a small town, a survivor of abuse. I can’t separate my writing from my trauma and my anger. I’m a very angry person a lot of the time. There’s a big artistic risk in that, but I also think there’s massive, explosive artistic potential, and that was the line I wanted to tread.”

Airini Beautrais and her brilliant, furious Bug Week (Photo: Tracey Grant)

I have read Bug Week twice. The first time it was the anger and the male entitlement that struck me. The second, it was the sheer strength of its women. The grace to be found in getting on with things. 

I think of Beautrais in the face of her trauma, ripping up her front lawn to grow poppies and hollyhocks. Looking after her kids. Learning pole dancing. Being brave enough to put all that on Instagram. Along the way she has smashed out a stupendous hat trick of prizes for writing every which way: she won the Jessie Mackay award for best first book of poetry in 2007; the Landfall essay competition, probably our most prestigious, in 2016; and now the biggest fiction award this country has to offer, with its attendant fuck-yeah jackpot of $57,000. 

Beautrais’ small, pink, bug-covered book was up against her masterful VUP stablemates Pip Adam and Catherine Chidgey, both already Acorn winners, both with big, accomplished novels in the running. Either of them could’ve won but I was picking Brannavan Gnanalingam for Sprigs, a novel about a high school rape and the gross dissembling that followed, because it had an unusual rushing force to it; it’s a book you read in a whoosh. (I have no doubt that Gnanalingam will whoosh off with an Acorn one day – he’s now made the shortlist twice.)

And yet I am overjoyed that Beautrais won, largely because I did not think that she could. It feels significant – it feels huge – that a woman who calls out the writing establishment, who writes about rape and male entitlement and safe houses and the stickiness of trauma, who openly writes from a place of anger, who writes it all so sardonic and clever and beautiful, has won. 

The fact that she has won with short stories is a delicious side note. The shortlist has been all novels all the way since 2017, when CK Stead gave it a swing with his collection The Name on the Door is Not Mine. (Chidgey beat him with The Wish Child.) In the award’s 53 year history only Charlotte Grimshaw has managed to win with short stories, and that was eight years ago. 

I love the thought of Beautrais and Grimshaw in a class of their own. 

“[A Bug Week] win would be a real surprise,” awards trustee Paula Morris said to North & South last month, referring to the short stories thing. 

So it feels like a triumph, it feels only right, that tonight there was Beautrais, standing strong on stage, taking her place among the women. Congratulations. Superb. Surprise

A black and white image of a pōwhiri, men and women in evening dress in background.

Ko Ngāti Rānana te kapa pōwhiri i a Sir Bernard Freyberg, i te Kāwana Tianara o Aotearoa i tōna wā, ki te Guild Hall, i Rānana, i te tau 1962 / Ngāti Rānana welcome Sir Bernard Freyberg, then Governor General of New Zealand, to Guild Hall, London, in 1962 (Photo: Tīmoti Kāretu, from Mātāmua ko te Kupu!)

Surprise, too, for Tā Tīmoti Kāretu: he’s been awarded the Te Mūrau o te Tuhi and its $10,000 pot for the second time in three years. Remarkable, given that the award has only been given out three times in the last decade. More on his book Mātāmua ko te Kupu!, about haka and waiata, in coming weeks; for now, a word from judge Paraone Gloyne:

Mātāmua ko te kupu! Koinei te kōrero a Tā Tākuta Tīmoti Kāretu, ka mutu, kāore i tua atu i a ia hei whakatauira i tēnei tauākī āna, i ōna hekenga werawera ki te reo i āna kaupapa huhua, mai, mai. Ko tana mahi hoki tērā mō te reo i ngā mahi a Tānerore, e tātai mai ana i roto i tana pukapuka nei, āna kitenga, ōna mōhiotanga, huri noa i tana takahi i roto i tērā ao hei kaihaka, hei kaitito, hei kaiako, hei kaiwhakawā, anō hoki. Tō tātou māri hoki kua kōpakina ōna whakaaro ki āna anō kupu ki te reo, i roto hoki i te wana, me te kupu horipū.

Lyric is paramount!” this is the axiom of Sir Dr Tīmoti Kāretu, and there is no other than he who best personifies this statement in his labours for the Māori language in all he has done for countless years. Similar are his efforts for te reo in traditional Māori performing arts, as recounted in his book with his views and knowledge throughout his journey in that realm as a performer, a composer, a tutor and a judge. We are fortunate that his reflections are encapsulated with his own words in the Māori language with such passion and candour.

A photograph of pikopiko fronds arranged on a black background. The cover of Hiakai.

Pikopiko, as featured in Monique Fiso’s Ockham-winning Hiakai (Photo: Manja Wachsmuth)

Onwards to the other categories, which were not surprising at all. 

Reviewing Hiakai for The Spinoff, chef Te Tangaroa Turnbull called it “a foundation text for the use of traditional Māori ingredients.

“Both breathtaking in scope and a launching pad … Her book is a gift to every young chef in Aotearoa.”

Hiakai was also a given to win, I thought – it was too important not to, even though (that stunning cover aside) it was narrowly outclassed on aesthetics by both Jane Ussher’s Nature – Stilled and Sara McIntyre’s Observations of a Rural Nurse, which was inexplicably dispatched before the final four. 

Hiakai won the MitoQ best first book prize in this category too, topping up Fiso’s $10,000 prize with an extra $2500. That win was also a given, really, as it was the only debut on the shortlist.

Ralph Hotere stares out from the cover of his biography, The Dark is Light Enough. And Madison Hamill's essay collection Specimen features a girl suspended in a specimen jar.

The winners of the general non-fiction category; O’Sullivan overall, and Hamill for best first book (Images: Supplied)

There was muttering a couple of years back when Fiona Kidman won the Acorn with This Mortal Boy, beating Vincent O’Sullivan’s widely-tipped novel All This By Chance. It was Vincent’s year, et cetera. Well, no it wasn’t, but tonight’s win might just feel even better. 

This biography was meant to be so simple – it started out as an agreement between men who’d been friends 50 years. O’Sullivan’s promise to Hotere. But once the research was properly under way, pushback from Hotere’s trust turned the project “rancid”, O’Sullivan has said. He eventually ditched it, or he thought he had. But the promise gnawed at him. And here we are. 

Because of the disputes, this is a biography of an artist that contains no art. What it contains is family photographs, and an immense amount of research, and a clarifying sense of respect. 

I couldn’t help but hope for the underdog – Specimen, the incredibly smart and surprising book of essays by Madison Hamill, genius. But line her up against O’Sullivan and it’s clear things shook down as they should’ve in this category: Hamill won a MitoQ best first book award, and $2500, and she’ll absolutely be back to clean up later.

Yahoo! We're inside a soundshell in a park, looking out at a woman, a child and a dog silhouetted against the light. The woman and child are punching the air in celebration.

Yahoo! The perfect photograph, from the cover of Rachel Kerr’s novel Victory Park (Photo: Emma Hislop)

As well as Bug Week I had another yahoo moment: Rachel Kerr won MitoQ best first book in the fiction category with Victory Park, notably another debut from Mākaro Press, which last year did quite well with a debut called Auē. Yahoo!

This was possibly the toughest race of all. On the numbers alone it was intense – five debuts on the shortlist this year! – and then you look at the names: Kerr was up against Chloe Lane with The Swimmers, Eamonn Marra for 2000ft Above Worry Level, Amy McDaid for Fake Baby, and Sally Morgan for Toto Among the Murderers. 

I’ve been going on and on about Victory Park. It is a quiet, beautifully-lit little book about a single mother. It didn’t get much attention when it released, but we reviewed it at length, saying: 

“It is an examination of privilege and blinkers and how we all trade in the currency of paying attention. How the all-day mathematics of poverty wears a person down. It is also funny, knowing, and joyous – a celebration of people who give a shit. You’ll want to give it to people you love.”

Congratulations, everyone. 

Sections of four poetry books: Funkhaus, Magnolia, The Savage Coloniser Book and National Anthem

Your 2021 Ockhams poetry finalists (Images: Supplied)

Poetry editor Chris Tse writes: 

Over the last month The Spinoff has featured a poem from each of the finalists’ collections as the Friday Poem. Publishing these has reminded me of the fearlessness and mana imbued in the four outstanding shortlisted books. I found myself thinking that any of them could win. 

But there can only be one, and I’m thrilled that Tusiata Avia has won this year, for a collection that buries itself deep in the reader’s mind and heart. She is the first Pasifika woman to win the top poetry prize at our book awards.

Much has already been said about this extraordinary and timely collection. Poetry category convenor Dr Briar Wood says “It’s a book bursting with alofa, profound pantoums, profanity and FafSwaggering stances, garrulously funny, bleakly satirical, magnificent.” In a review for the Academy of New Zealand Literature, former Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh described it as “a poetic record of historic reasons for group anger”. 

Anger, rage and frustration propel many of the poems in The Savage Coloniser Book. Avia takes aim at historic and modern villains who have benefited, and continue to benefit, from the systems and privileges that are responsible for the gulf between “us” and “them”. In her poems, Avia’s anger is fashioned into both a shield and a weapon. “Everyone armours up”, she writes in Race Riot, whereas in the searing 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand her rage is distilled into a series of brutal assaults directed at the controversial captain. Avia fortifies her anger with moments of humour and tenderness, which make the barbs feel sharper and the truths land harder.

Tusiata Avia photographed from above, head and shoulders showing, surrounded by fruit and flowers, smiling. Also her book The Savage Coloniser.

Tusiata Avia and her Ockham-winning book (Images: Supplied)

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of anger in poetry and literature, and I’ve come to the conclusion that more now than ever it’s a necessity to amplify the pain we all carry every time we hear about another racist micro-aggression, or a mass shooting targeting people of colour. The Savage Coloniser Book isn’t the first, nor will it be the last, book that gives voice to the collective fury experienced by those labelled “other”, but it is without a doubt a book for the here and now.

The winner of the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry is I Am A Human Being by poet and librarian Jackson Nieuwland. Their win means publisher Compound Press has broken a 14-year streak of Auckland University Press and Victoria University Press dominating this award. I’m a big fan of this extraordinary book (you can find me raving about it on its back cover) and its contribution to contemporary New Zealand poetry. 

I Am A Human Being is a playful and poignant exploration of gender identity featuring an inventory of living and inanimate objects that serve as proxies for the answer to that big, gnarly question: who/what am I? Taken as a whole, Niuewland’s book is a puzzle where the final image is constantly shifting. The speaker of the poems morphs into multiple forms, each with its own unique beauty and complications. Holding these many potential ways of being human together is Niuewland’s distinct and congenial voice, beckoning to the reader: “I am in here somewhere. Find your way to me”.

Congratulations to these two very deserving winners, and the equally deserving poets on both the shortlist and longlist. It’s very exciting to see the calibre of work being recognised at the Ockhams. And based on the books published so far this year, 2022’s awards promise to be just as lively. 

All of these wonderful books are available at Unity Books Auckland and Wellington




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