Life is hell, but at least there are prizes: A night at the Ockham Book Awards

The Spinoff had multiple scouts at last night’s awards bash. This piece is by Alec Redvers-Hill, and we’ve dropped in a selection of texts from Spinoff publisher Duncan Greive, who maintained a barrage of such updates all night.

Duncan Greive’s texts are [italicised].

“So, who won?” It’s a perfectly natural thing to ask about an awards ceremony. It’s just as natural for coverage to boil down to a list of winners, bullet-pointed with the works for which they won and the prize money they collected. However, as Stacey Morrison, the MC for last night’s awards said, internet writing is a sprint, but the writers honoured here are our culture’s marathon runners. The least we might do, then, is spend some time actually in the room with them.

Time is certainly on the minds of those around me as we start to shuffle into the Aotea Theatre. I’m told it’s going to be a slog, that I should stock up on the mini burgers at the bar. Two children – I catch myself being surprised that there are children here – worry about the ceremony being three hours, but are reassured that it should only be two, and that they’re heading straight home as soon as it’s over. (They end up making a break for it just after the one-hour mark, which is longer than can be said for another journalist covering the event, seated across the aisle with both thumbs Irish dancing across the screen of his smartphone.)

Time is also on the minds of the organisers. An on-stage screen shuffles ponderously through quotes from notable New Zealand works as we enter the theatre (Witi Ihimaera’s Bulibasha, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries) then gains speed, flashing column after column of former New Zealand Book Award winners, a la the galloping screeds of credits on Game of Thrones. Next, photos of the shortlisted authors and their works fly across the screen accompanied by the quick, Pacific beats of three on-stage drummers. Now it feels like the opening credits of Survivor.

An opening karanga by Morrison [DG: she is brilliant] is accompanied by a disappointing-yet-expected smattering of eye rolling, watch checking, and conspicuous coughing from sections of the audience.  Morrison stresses that the winners’ speeches should be “short and brilliant and also quite short” warning that, like the Oscars, the drummers will play off anyone taking too long.

Thankfully, the drummers, from South Auckland-based theatre troupe, The Black Friars, are never deployed for this particular task. Instead, projected on the big screen, they make like an online reaction video: all surprised starts, knowing nods, and perfectly timed chuckles.

We trot through the first set of winners:

Best first book of poetry to Tayi Tibble for Poūkahangatus. Everyone keeps tripping over the title.

[Tayi makes a short, breathless, engaging speech]

[Winners have to stand on stage being praised. It’s awkward and sweet.]

Best first book of fiction to Kirsten Warner for The Sound of Breaking Glass.

[Bernie Griffen, Kirsten’s partner of 37 years, is standing in for her because she’s had an aneurysm and is in hospital. Bluff bearded dude. Maybe the folk musician dude?] Ed: can confirm, is folk musician dude.

Best first work of general non-fiction to Chessie Henry for We Can Make a Life.

[Chessie Henry seems cool]

Best first work of illustrated non-fiction to John Reid for Whatever It Takes: Pacific Films and John O’Shea 1948-2000.

[Two super young and two… older winners of best first book]

[3 / 4 best first prizes for VUP]

[INCRED]

[INCRED]

Now it’s the discretionary Māori Language Award Te Mūrau o te Tuhi, awarded to Sir Tīmoti Kāretu and Dr Wharehuia Milroy, who died last week, for He Kupu Tuku Iho: Ko te Reo Māori te Tatau ki te Ao.

[solo audience haka for Wharehuia Milroy]

[super emotional speech]

[AUP thanked for “being bold” in agreeing to publish in te reo without a translation. Hope it continues]

[Milroy “was like an Obi Wan Kenobi” – Stacey Morrison]

There’s a mix of hope that the success of works like this can prove the viability of te reo Māori writing – the book went into a second reprint less than a week after initial release – and acknowledgment of the continued precariousness of the language, despite its recent resurgence and the explosion of enthusiasts, champions, and advocates. Special note is made of the loss of Milroy and the unveiling, to be held later this week, of Professor John Moorfield, a contributing force to the work.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-Fiction goes to Joanne Drayton amid huge applause for Hudson & Halls: The Food of Love, written by Drayton on her daily walks to her job at Avondale College following layoffs at Unitec. Her message is “you can do it” – but she hopes for more support of writers, so that writing doesn’t have to take place on the footpath.

[Drayton wins: “stunned, truly stunned. I’m so used to preparing myself for disappointment, and do such a good job… that I didn’t prepare anything”]

We move on to the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry.

[All poetry sounds like prose now is probably extremely unprofound but yeah]

Helen Heath takes out the award with her collection Are Friends Electric?

[Helen Heath dedicates award to her mum, who passed at 49. She (Helen) will be 49 in July.]

Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot win the Illustrated Non-Fiction category for their beautifully crafted Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing.

[Illos of tatau are so fucking cool]

[I mean photography]

Finally, Fiona Kidman takes the evening’s grand prize, the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize for This Mortal Boy, a fictionalised account of the events leading up to the hanging of Paddy Black, the so-called “jukebox killer” in 1955.

[Extreme gasping when Fiona announced]

[Heaps and heaps of murmuring at the judges’ remarks]

[Fiction prize is $53k lol]

[“Includes inflation”]

[“I’d like to thank the sponsors… it’s the sort of prize that makes a difference”]

[Many references to dead whānau tonight]

Each author shortlisted for the final four prizes has an extract of their work read aloud. It’s the highlight of the evening. Some of the authors really shine.

[“Purple cock dropping over the testicles” most confronting reading of the night]

[Kate Duignan]

Erik Kennedy has a comedian’s magnetic grip on the audience as he reads a tribute to “the best sport in the world” – not rugby, not cricket, but wood-chopping in the form of ‘Double Saw Final at the Canterbury A&P Show’ from his collection There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime.

…I think

that, first, being the men, or, second, being the saw

would be the dream, either the agents or the tool

of the show’s obliteration, but for poise and certainty

[…] you can’t beat the log.

Therese Lloyd is mesmerising as she reads an extract from her poem ‘The Facts’, about a former alcoholic who now fills his hours with astral travel. As for Fiona Kidman, I would listen to her read a Grunning’s drill bits catalogue.

But the absolute winner of the night for me is Chessie Henry. Simply knowing We Can Make a Life won best first work of general non-fiction would be unlikely to compel me to read it. Its cover design is unappealing, its title seems both awkwardly striving and sentimental, its subtitle, “a memoir of family, earthquakes and courage” doubles down on both, and its description as a reminiscence of family in rural New Zealand in light of the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes is almost everything I would personally try to avoid. But then Henry stands to read the final paragraph of the second chapter and her writing is magical.

There’s some chatter during the evening that the awards aren’t the glam event one might expect, that it’s not what it was. Some people still dress up – there are capes, coats and cloaks in all manner of red, and one particularly stunning white pant suit – but there are just as many running shoes, backpacks, puffer jackets and woolly jumpers.

A number of the winners express their gratitude for the prize money, acknowledge the sponsors and donors who provide them, and emphasise the need for writers to be read and supported.

[At no awards I’ve ever been to have winners been as good and diligent at thanking sponsors and philanthropists]

In Fiona Kidman’s acceptance speech for the final prize of the evening, she declares “awards matter”, echoing two invocations earlier in the ceremony of Janet Frame’s quote “life is hell, but at least there are prizes”. Our MC reminds us for the third time that the books are available for purchase outside the theatre before leaving us with her final words: he aha te kai ō te rangatira? He kōrero.

At the after-party, where there are some seriously off-the-chain mini pies, I pick up a copy of Chessie Henry’s We Can Make a Life. I flip to a random page and read a paragraph. I do it again. And again. Each is as wonderful as the last. I take it up together with a long anticipated copy of He Kupu Tuku Iho, pay for this food of my soul and head out into the night.

[Peter Biggs just absolutely brought the house down at the after party. “Fuck Greg Toohey!” Print it.]  Ed: apparently Toohey is a random long-ago schoolmate of Biggs??

[Sorry for the million texts btw]


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