Ockham NZ Book Awards Finalists

This year’s finalists for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are sixteen books that offer rich reading experiences, attitude, experience and ambition across four categories: Poetry, Fiction, Illustrated Non-Fiction and General Non-Fiction.

Together with the NZ Book Awards Trust, the Academy of NZ Literature has created e-samplers for each category, with extracts from each shortlisted book. You can find read only versions here and also below on this page for you to both read and download. Each extract is prefaced with the judges’ comments about that particular book.

The Ockhams ‘recognise excellence in New Zealand books for adult readers written in English or te Reo Māori’. Some iteration of a book awards has run since 1968, taking in mergers, inter-sponsor blips and different approaches to categories and finalists. For example, Alan Duff’s first novel, Once Were Warriors, was eligible in two different contests: the 1991 Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards and its rival New Zealand Book Awards. In the Wattie, only three books were recognised each year, and Once Were Warriors won second prize, although it was the only fiction title on the podium. At that year’s NZ Book Awards, the winning fiction title, with its own specific award (the other awards were for Poetry, Non-Fiction and Book Production), was Maurice Gee’s The Burning Boy. By 1997, when Duff’s second novel, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, was in contention, the two awards had merged into the Montana NZ Book Awards, with eight different prizes offered in addition to three best-first-book awards. That year Duff won the big Fiction prize.

The Ockhams era began in 2016, when Ockham ResidentialAuckland-based housing developers and ‘urban regenerators’stepped into the sponsorship void. (Click here for a brief history of book awards’ sponsors.) In the recent past, the awards were an industry event, a ritzy dinner for booksellers and publishers. Now they’re a public event held every May, part of the mammoth Auckland Writers’ Festival, in the Aotea Centre’s Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre. This year’s date is Wednesday 12 May.

Compared with the Montana years, where more than a dozen different prizes, as well as the three best-first-book awards, were awarded on the night, the Ockhams era feels more streamlined. No more People’s Choice or Readers’ Choice or Booksellers’ Choice; no more runners-up or third places; no more overall medal rewarding a book that has already won a prize in the awards. From a book buyer’s point of viewor even that of a booksellerthe distillation may be welcome. There are still forty longlisted titles each year, twenty of which are General or Illustrated Nonfiction.

However, Nonfiction is no longer subdivided into six different categories, often to the chagrin of publishers of nonfiction, and sometimes to writers who feel that someone else’s memoir has squeezed out their work of history, or that someone else’s major work of reference has squeezed out their collection of essays. The historians may have more excuse for teeth-gnashing. In the five years of the Ockhams to date, the General Nonfiction category has been won by memoirs or personal essays four times: Witi Ihimaera’s Māori Boy (2016); Ashleigh Young’s Can You Tolerate This? (2017); Diana Wichtel’s Driving to Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father (2018); and Shayne Carter’s Dead People I Have Known (2020).

Judging this year’s General Non-Fiction Award are editor Sarah Shieff, associate professor of English at the University of Waikato (convenor); filmmaker and lecturer in Māori history at Victoria University Wellington Arini Loader (Ngāti Raukawa, Te Whānau-a-Apanui, Ngāti Whakaue); and Dunedin bookseller Michael Yeomans.

The four finalists are Specimen: Personal Essays, a debut collection by Madison Hamill; another debut, Te Hāhi Mihinare |The Māori Anglican Church by Hirini Kaa; The Dark is Light Enough: Ralph Hotere A Biographical Portrait by Vincent O’Sullivan; and This Pākehā Life: An Unsettled Memoir by Alison Jones.

The judging panel describes the finalists’ books as alive with the flows of history and power that shape all of our lives. ‘These four books, each in its own way an extraordinary achievement in the category’s defining parameters of story-telling, research and memory work, will enrich the conversations we have about ourselves and this place for years to come.’

The judges for the Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction are Dale Cousens (Ngāruahine) of the National Library of New Zealand (convenor); bookseller and former publisher Brian Phillips; and writer, graphic designer and magazine art director Jenny Nicholls.

The shortlisted titles are An Exquisite Legacy: The Life and Work of New Zealand Naturalist G.V. Hudson by George Gibbs; Hiakai: Modern Māori Cuisine by Monique Fiso; Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists by Leonard Bell; and Nature — Stilled by Jane Ussher.

The judging panel says, ‘The four finalists are standout examples of a dazzlingly broad range of passions, from the arts and sciences to food, adventure and the outdoors, distilled into beautiful and engaging works.’

The Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry is arguably this year’s most ground-breaking shortlist. Finalists are: The Savage Coloniser Book by Tusiata Avia; Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker; National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan; and Magnolia 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles.

This year’s judges are convenor Briar Wood (Te Hikutu ki Hokianga, Ngāpuhi Nui), 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards finalist; award-winning poet and novelist Anne Kennedy; and professor of English at the University of Otago Jacob Edmond. ‘It’s an exciting situation for New Zealand poetry,’ they write. ‘The four shortlisted collections are striking, all exhibiting an acute global consciousness in difficult times.’

The Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction is judged by reviewer and writer Kiran Dass (convenor); books editor and feature writer Paul Little; and writer Claire Finlayson, former programme director of the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival. They are joined in deciding the ultimate winner from their shortlist of four by award-winning American writer Tommy Orange.

The finalists are the collection Bug Week & Other Stories by Airini Beautrais; and three novels: Nothing to See by Pip Adam; Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey; and Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam

This year’s fiction judging panel says the three novels and one short story collection on the 2021 shortlist all pack an immense literary punch. ‘Craft, nuance, urgent storytelling, rage against injustice, and new perspectives are at the forefront of these four impressive books.’


The 2021 Ockhams Samplers

The new series of digital samplers feature extracts from all 2021 finalist books for your reading enjoyment, and hopefully to entice you to go out and buy the books, or loan them from your local library. You can view read-only versions here, or click on the covers below to download samplers.


Jann Medlicott Prize for Fiction…………Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand …………………………………………………………Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction



Mary and Peter Biggs…………………….General Non-Fiction Award
…..Award for Poetry          





Paula Morris is a fiction writer and essayist, and has served on the NZ Book Awards Trust for the past five years. Her novel Rangatira won the Fiction prize at the 2012 NZ Post Book Awards.

‘Inspiration is the name for a privileged kind of listening.’ - John Howard

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