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Four of the winning books
Four of the winning books

BooksMay 15, 2024

Emily Perkins takes home top prize for fiction at Ockham book awards

Four of the winning books
Four of the winning books

Books editor Claire Mabey reports on the winners of this year’s book awards.

Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction ($65,000 prize)

Lioness by Emily Perkins (published by Bloomsbury), about a middle-aged woman wrestling with her life choices, has won the $65,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction.

Hooo boy this year’s decision was crazy-making to predict. Lioness was up against Eleanor Catton’s big ‘n batshit Birnam Wood, Pip Adam’s supersonic Audition, and Stephen Daisley’s atmospheric A Better Place. But, it also comes as no surprise that Lioness edged out ahead: it’s a shrewd novel, about judgement without being judgey. It’s funny, it’s relatable, it’s full of unpredictable energy and questions, and because of that it’s surprising. 

The Fiction category’s convenor of judges, Juliet Blyth, says: Lioness starts with a hiss and ends with a roar as protagonist Therese’s dawning awareness and growing rage reveals itself. At first glance this is a psychological thriller about a privileged, wealthy family and its unravelling. Look closer and it is an incisive exploration of wealth, power, class, female rage, and the search for authenticity.

“Emily Perkins deftly wrangles a large cast of characters in vivid technicolour, giving each their moment in the sun while dextrously weaving together multiple plotlines.  Her acute observations and razor-sharp wit decimate the tropes of mid-life in moments of pure prose brilliance, leaving the reader gasping for more. Disturbing, deep, smart, and funny as hell, Lioness is unforgettable.”

Emily Perkins last won New Zealand’s top fiction prize in 2009 with Novel About My Wife, which is one of the most memorable NZ novels I’ve ever read. Carrie O’Grady reviewed it on The Guardian in 2009 and said that Perkins has a “subtle power”, which feels just about perfect for Lioness, too. Read our review of the novel right here

In accepting the award (a stunning purple acorn) for the second time, Perkins thanked all the writers of books published in the last year, all those who support books – “all of us writers are readers first and foremost”. She went on to compliment each of the other books nominated, noting “it’s the books going through this prize process, not us”.

“Fiction is a form of magic. A necessary magic. To the politicians and the decision-makers and anybody who might find themselves in a system of ‘what if’, I say read a story, read a novel, read the work of the great Canadian writer Alice who died today, and remember how vulnerable and layered and loving and connection we all are.”

The winner of the Hubert Church Prize for Fiction is, brilliantly, Ruin and Other Stories by Emma Hislop (Kāi Tahu) (Te Herenga Waka University Press), who wrote about the making of the book for us on The Spinoff, here. This is the second year in a row that short story collection has scooped this prize for best first book (last year it was Anthony Lapwood’s Home Theatre), continuing a trend in acknowledging the place of the short story: devilishly tricky form, gold when it goes right. 

The best first book awards all come with $3,000 cash and a 12-month membership subscription to the New Zealand Society of Authors Te Puni Kaituhi o Aotearoa.

Hislop thanked “writers everywhere” alongside fellow finalists, and noted her collection took a decade to complete.

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

Grace Yee has won the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry for Chinese Fish (Giramondo) which is the latest in a string of cash prizes for this remarkable book.

Who says poetry doesn’t pay? Grace Yee (who lives in Melbourne) won both the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature – the first poet to do so in more than a decade – and the $25,000 poetry category for Chinese Fish at the 2024 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. This latest win makes a total of $NZD149,293 so far. 

Ockhams Poetry category convenor Erik Kennedy says Chinese Fish blurs genres, dances around the page and crosses languages by fusing Cantonese-Taishanese and English, both official and unofficial. “Yee’s craft is remarkable,” he says. “She moves between old newspaper cuttings, advertisements, letters, recipes, cultural theory, and dialogue. Creating a new archival poetics for the Chinese trans-Tasman diaspora, the sequence narrates a Hong Kong family’s assimilation into New Zealand life from the 1960s to the 1980s, interrogating ideas of citizenship and national identity.

“It displaces the reader, evoking the unsettledness of migration. In Chinese Fish, Yee cooks up a rich variety of poetic material into a book that is special and strange; this is poetry at its urgent and thrilling best.”

In an interview between Yee and Emma Sidnam (who was longlisted for her novel, Backwaters), Yee discusses how she wrote Chinese Fish as part of her PhD: “The critical component of the thesis focused on settler Chinese women’s storytelling in Aotearoa. It considered the different ways that Chinese women are subordinated by the Pākehā mainstream, and at the same time, by patriarchal Chinese expectations. It was driven by the question of whether an autonomous space separate from these oppressive narratives is possible.”

Yee was not present at the ceremony so Paula Morris accepted on her behalf, reading a prepared speech. “I am thrilled that Chinese Fish has been acknowledged here, in the country I grew up. Despite its exotic title, Chinese Fish is very much a New Zealand story.”

The Jessie Mackay Prize for Poetry (for best first book) goes to At the Point of Seeing by Te Wai Pounamu poet, Megan Kitching (Otago University Press) which will delight her fans and hopefully turn more readers to her work. We’ll be doing a deep dive in our How to Read a Poem series, soon.

In accepting, Kitching dedicated her award to “all those readers who’ve given my book their attention and found something in it”.

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

Writer, poet, artist and curator Gregory O’Brien MNZM has won the Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction for Don Binney: Flight Path (Auckland University Press). 

Zero surprises here tbh. I’d pegged this one as the winner from the get-go, given how exceptional O’Brien’s work is on this gorgeous, ethereal publication.

Category convenor Lynn Freeman says even as an experienced biographer, Gregory O’Brien has achieved a near impossible task in Don Binney: Flight Path: “He has encapsulated the artist’s full life, honestly portraying his often contrary personality, and carefully interrogating a formidably large body of work and its place in Aotearoa New Zealand’s art history. 

“O’Brien’s respect for Binney includes acknowledging that he could be both charming and curmudgeonly, and as a result he offers a complete picture of this complex and creative man. Equally compelling are the book’s faithfully reproduced artworks, exemplifying the best in design, layout and reproduction.

“From the cover onwards, the images of the paintings take us to the place where Binney observed the land and the birds, capturing the qualities of whenua that meant so much to him,” she says.

O’Brien thanked all those who helped him carry the “weighty book” that was Don Binney: Flight Path. He thanked his family for living with Binney (who died in 2012) throughout the project, as he “took up a lot of oxygen”. Then he thanked Binney’s wife and daughter for trusting him with the story, merely “a moment in the ongoing life of Don Binney”.

The Judith Binney Prize for Illustrated Non-Fiction (for best first book) went to Ryan Bodman for Rugby League in New Zealand: A People’s History (Bridget Williams Books). Bodman gave a great interview over on e-Tangata in which he says: “My interest in rugby league flowed out of that, because league also was kind of counter-cultural and working-class, which was this element in society that the unions rested on heavily. And league, like the unions, had been on the back foot for 30 years because of the changes that had taken place in the economy, and the growing influence of a corporate culture.

The history of rugby league in New Zealand spoke clearly to aspects of working-class life and heritage in New Zealand, and it also offered a unique take on the changes that have reshaped our society across the past few decades.

Here was a game built on deep foundations of working-class life in New Zealand, and suddenly it emerged as a powerful vehicle for the sale of beer and paid-TV subscriptions, and it was quickly overrun by the money men.”

Bodman kept his speech short, thanking God and many others.

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

Me old nemesis. The category that wakes me up at 3am worrying about the methodology behind this decision. But decisions were arrived at and this year’s winner is Auckland University of Technology vice chancellor, interdisciplinary scholar and critically acclaimed author Damon Salesa for his work, An Indigenous Ocean: Pacific Essays (Bridget Williams Books).

And look this is very much deserved: The book is timely, and rigorous and it couldn’t have been done by anyone else. Category convenor of judges Jim Tully ONZM says Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa’s seminal work asserts the Pacific’s ongoing impact worldwide, despite marginalisation by New Zealand and others, and will maintain its relevance for generations: An Indigenous Ocean weaves together academic rigour, captivating stories and engaging prose to reframe our understanding of New Zealand’s colonial history in the South Pacific.

“This scholarly but highly accessible collection of essays carves out space for indigenous voices to tell their own narratives. Grounded in a deep understanding of Pacific history and cultures, Salesa addresses the contemporary social, political, economic, regional and international issues faced by Pacific nations.” 

Last year’s winner was Ned Fletcher’s stonking The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi, also published by Bridget Williams Books. Suggests this category is running down an academic vein / that it’s the devil’s work trying to compare scholarly works with creative non-fiction, I’d say.

Salesa thanked his cover artist John Puhiatau Pule, because “we have to be honest and say people do judge books by their cover” and paid tribute to his fanau and colleagues. He quoted one of his favourite lines about writing: “We don’t write for prizes, we write to share our stories.” But Salesa also got a prize, as a bonus.

The best first book winner of the E.H. McCormick Prize for General Non-Fiction is Emma Wehipeihana (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Porou) for There’s a Cure for This (Penguin Random House) which is reviewed on The Spinoff here, and excerpted here

In accepting her award, Wehipeihana was succint, describing her day job as a doctor as having “seen the insides of most orifices in the human body… and I can tell you without a doubt it’s the art and the artists who elevate our existence from being sacks of meat circling a dying star to something magical, something with meaning”. Then she ended with a message, presumably for the prime minister who had opened the ceremony. “Fund the arts.”

Te Mūrau o te Tuhi Māori Language Award ($12,000)

This award is given out by the discretion of a specially appointed judge (publishers submit books they think are deserving). 

This year, esteemed academic, Waitangi Tribunal member, and Kīngi Tūheitia’s “Council of Twelve” member Tā Pou Temara KNZM (Ngāi Tūhoe) was presented with the 2024 Te Mūrau o te Tuhi Māori Language Award for Te Rautakitahi O Tūhoe ki Ōrākau (Auckland University Press). 

Judge Paraone Gloyne (Raukawa ki Wharepūhunga, Ngāti Maniapoto) says the book is a valuable account exploring the big questions about the Tūhoe men and women who went to fight with Ngāti Maniapoto in the battle of Ōrākau during the New Zealand Wars.

Raised in Ruatāhuna, where most of the Tūhoe who went to Ōrākau came from, Tā Pou offers a unique insight of this key episode, written entirely in te reo Māori. Te Rautakitahi O Tūhoe ki Ōrākau is a rare, vividly executed and deeply considered book based on oral sources through the stories told to Tā Pou by his grandfather, great-grandmother and other kuia and koroua when he was young. 

“Aotearoa is fortunate to have in its canon a book of this significance written by one of Aotearoa’s leading Māori public intellectuals,” says Mr Gloyne.

In accepting his award, Tā Pou said he was pleased to receive the award “not for myself but for the Māori language. I am merely the hand that held the pen that gives life to the Māori language.”

Congratulations and commiserations one and all. All of the books can be purchased at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland. Many of the writers are appearing at the spectacular Auckland Writers Festival which is on now (programme is online here). 

Whiskey sours to all of those who make these awards viable: Ockham Residential, Creative New Zealand, the late Jann Medlicott and the Acorn Foundation, Mary and Peter Biggs CNZM, Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand, the Mātātuhi Foundation, and the Auckland Writers Festival.

And dirty martinis for the judges: The Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction will be judged by reading advocate and former bookseller Juliet Blyth (convenor); writer, reviewer and literary festival curator Kiran Dass; and fiction writer Anthony Lapwood (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Whakaue, Pākehā); and international judge Natalie Haynes.

Judging the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry will be poet, critic and editor Erik Kennedy (convenor); poet and performance writer Tru Paraha (Ngāti Hineāmaru, Te Kahu o Torongare ki Waiomio, Ngāti Te Tarawa); and author, editor and university lecturer Dougal McNeill.

The General Non-Fiction Award will be judged by journalist and academic Jim Tully ONZM (convenor), writer, editor, broadcaster and literary festival curator Kerry Sunderland; and academic, researcher and author Rebecca Kiddle (Ngāti Porou, Ngā Puhi).

The Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction will be judged by former radio broadcaster and book reviewer Lynn Freeman (convenor); arts advocate and former festival director Marianne Hargreaves; and artist, curator and writer Ane Tonga.

Te Mūrau o te Tuhi Māori Language Award judge, Paraone Gloyne (Raukawa ki Wharepūhunga, Ngāti Maniapoto).

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