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Lee Murray, Tusiata Avia and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Photo of Tusiata Avia: Hayley Theyers. Image design: Archi Banal)
Lee Murray, Tusiata Avia and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Photo of Tusiata Avia: Hayley Theyers. Image design: Archi Banal)

BooksDecember 21, 2023

The most exciting Prime Minister’s Award list in years

Lee Murray, Tusiata Avia and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Photo of Tusiata Avia: Hayley Theyers. Image design: Archi Banal)
Lee Murray, Tusiata Avia and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Photo of Tusiata Avia: Hayley Theyers. Image design: Archi Banal)

Books editor Claire Mabey reports on an historic all-women lineup for the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement 2023.

For the first time in its 21-year history, three women are the recipients of the trio of Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement. Tusiata Avia MNZM is the first Pasifika woman to receive the poetry award; Lee Murray is the first person of Chinese heritage to receive the award for fiction; and Linda Tuhiwai Smith CNZM (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Porou) is the first wahine Māori to receive the nonfiction award.

It’s also the first time that none of the recipients are Pākehā. In the press release from Creative New Zealand, which administers the awards, Arts Council chair Caren Rangi reflected: “We think of 21 as being a marker of maturity, and these writers reflect that in our literary scene. Each of these women is fearless in different ways, through experiment with genre, theory, and form. They have been recognised because they have each forged distinctive styles in their respective areas of practice.”

The PMALA’s, which each come with a career-boosting (especially at this time of funding scarcity) $60,000, are designed to acknowledge each writer’s contribution to Aotearoa literature at large (as opposed to honouring a single publication). The eligibility criteria asks that writers nominated are acclaimed and recognised for a body of work, have received a major fellowship, residency, award or international recognition, and shown leadership in the literary sector. 

The all-women line up shifts the award’s historic favouring of male writers into a slightly improved ratio of 26 women of the 63 recipients to date. It is a timely acknowledgement that Aotearoa women of colour have mapped the possible landscape for what constitutes New Zealand literature for years. 

The community of speculative fiction, sci-fi and horror writers will be celebrating the fact that genre fiction is being recognised in the award to Lee Murray who flown the flag for years. “It is humbling to be the first writer of Chinese heritage to receive this prestigious award, to have my name listed alongside such iconic Aotearoa writers, including Tusiata and Linda whom I admire for their mahi, their resilience, and their grace,” said Murray. “Traditionally, it isn’t seemly for Chinese women to accept a compliment, but I am grateful to all involved for their kind acknowledgement of my work. It means so much, and not just to me: I hope other Asian diaspora, speculative, and horror writers will be encouraged to tell their stories. Anything is possible.”

Lee Murray and the latest anthology she has edited.

Murray’s astonishing body of work includes 16 novels and 70 short stories. She has won five international Bram Stoker Awards, four Australian Shadows Awards and 12 Sir Julius Vogel Awards, and is New Zealand’s only recipient of the Shirley Jackson Award for psychological horror for Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. In April 2024, Murray will release a new book, Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud, with The Cuba Press, which describes it as “an audacious blend of biography, mythology, horror and poetry that transcends genre to illuminate lives in the shadowlands of our history.”

Murray’s commitment to upholding other writers in the spec-fic/horror genres has also been relentless: she has edited 23 anthologies including the recently launched Remains to be Told: Dark Tales of Aotearoa. She is also the co-founder of the Wright-Murray residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, and in 2011 she co-founded the Young New Zealand Writers Programme with Piper Mejia, with the aim of providing writing and publishing opportunities for young people outside of the school curriculum.

Tusiata Avia reading from Big Brown Fat Bitch at Verb Readers & Writers Festival in Wellington. (Photo: Rebecca McMillan)

Poet Tusiata Avia is a widely beloved figure in Aotearoa’s literary and arts community. She has long forged a luminous, singular artistic voice that carries both personal histories as well as the vibrations of the Pasifika community. While she is best known for her poetry, she has also written children’s fiction, creative nonfiction, radio documentary, short film and theatre. She also teaches poetry, creative writing and performance in tertiary institutions, schools, justice facilities and refugee and Pacific communities. 

Avia is thrilled to have won this award for what she says is, for many, an unorthodox way to live a life. “It’s still an odd exchange when people ask me what I ‘do’,” says Avia. “Taxi drivers and other people ask me how I make a living from writing. I still haven’t managed a logical reply to that question because it’s a hand to mouth existence. The financial side of an award like this is a huge relief – there are a bunch of living costs I don’t have to worry about now. For a while at least. This award has come exactly at the right time for me and I’m very grateful for it.”

Avia’s poetry has won many awards including the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award in 2013, and the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2021 for her incendiary and astonishing collection, The Savage Coloniser, which was also staged as a theatre show (like her first poetry collection, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, which showed Off-Broadway, winning the 2019 Outstanding Production of the Year at Soho Playhouse). 

Avia’s latest book, released in November, is called Big Fat Brown Bitch, a reference to the kind of language fired at her from members of right-wing media and politics who, earlier in 2023, engaged in a highly visible and deliberate misrepresentation of her poetry in a bullying tactic that fuelled their own racist agendas. Avia received death threats as a result of the campaign.

“It’s completely ironic and hilarious that it is the ‘Prime Minister’s’ award,” says Avia. “I wrote my latest book shortly before the announcement of our National / New Zealand First / Act government – in the book I spare that group no mercy. Each leader comes under my poetic critical eye. Lucky, I guess, that we live in Aotearoa where a poet is not imprisoned or tortured for her work. Publicly used as political fodder to a racist agenda, gaslit and threatened (and pronounced a ‘mediocre poet’ by the now Deputy PM) perhaps, but not imprisoned or tortured.”

Anyone who has had the electrifying experience of witnessing Avia in performance knows that her art pivots on wit and warmth. Her delivery sparkles while she invites audiences to either sit with discomfort as her poetic reflections provoke and reveal their biases, or bask in comfort as her words affirm the truth of lived experience.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the realm of indigenous scholarship who has not been influenced by the work of Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Porou). Smith’s book Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples is considered a foundational text for Indigenous Studies both in Aotearoa and overseas. First published in 1999, it is now in its third edition and has been translated into many languages. 

Smith’s acclaim is immense: in 2023, she was made a lifetime international member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, and in 2021, became an international honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2018, she received the Royal Society of NZ Te Puawaitanga Award for Research Excellence in Te Ao Māori and Indigenous Knowledge and an honorary Doctor of Laws from University of Winnipeg, Canada. 

Linda Tuhiwai Smith and her groundbreaking book.

In 2017, she received the Prime Minister’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Education. The New Zealand Association for Research in Education recognised her sustained contribution to education with the NZARE McKenzie Award in 2015. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the American Educational Research Association. 

Smith has been awarded the Dame Joan Metge Medal (Royal Society of New Zealand), He Waka Tangata Social Science Annual Lecture Award, Te Tohu Pae Tawhiti (New Zealand Association for Research in Education NZARE), Jean Herbison Lecture Award (NZARE) and a Churchill Fellowship. In 2023 she received the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Rutherford Medal “for her preeminent role in advancing education and research for Te Ao Māori, her groundbreaking scholarship in decolonisation of research methodologies, and her pioneering contribution to transforming research for Indigenous Peoples globally”.

The awards will be celebrated with an event in 2024 with details to come. 

Previous recipients of the Awards

Fiction Poetry Non-fiction
Stephanie Johnson (2022) James Norcliffe (2022) Vincent O’Malley (2022)
David Hill (2021) Anne Kennedy (2021) Dame Claudia Orange (2021)
Tessa Duder (2020) Jenny Bornholdt (2020) Sir Tīmoti Kāretu (2020)
Elizabeth Knox (2019) Fleur Adcock (2019) Gavin Bishop (2019)
Renée (2018) Michael Harlow (2018) Wystan Curnow (2018)
Witi Tame Ihimaera-Smiler (2017) Paula Green (2017) Peter Simpson (2017)
Marilyn Duckworth (2016) David Eggleton (2016) Atholl Anderson (2016)
Roger Hall (2015) Bernadette Hall (2015) Dame Joan Metge (2015)
Jack Lasenby (2014) Ian Wedde (2014) Jock Phillips (2014)
Owen Marshall (2013) Michele Leggott (2013) Martin Edmond (2013)
Albert Wendt (2012) Sam Hunt (2012) Gregory O’Brien (2012)
Dame Fiona Kidman (2011) Peter Bland (2011) James Belich (2011)
Joy Cowley (2010) Cilla McQueen (2010) James McNeish (2010)
CK Stead (2009) Brian Turner (2009) Dr Ranginui Walker (2009)
Lloyd Jones (2008) Elizabeth Smither (2008) WH (Bill) Oliver (2008)
Fiona Farrell (2007) Bill Manhire (2007) Dick Scott (2007)
Patricia Grace (2006) Vincent O’Sullivan (2006) Judith Binney (2006)
Margaret Mahy (2005) Alistair Te Ariki Campbell (2005) Philip Temple (2005)
Maurice Gee (2004) Kevin Ireland (2004) Anne Salmond (2004)
Janet Frame (2003) Hone Tuwhare (2003) Michael King (2003)


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