Ockham NZ Book Awards: Shocks and Stats

The 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards took place in the waning hours of Level 3 COVID-19 lockdown, which meant no Auckland Writers Festival crowds, no disco ball, no live drummers, no wardrobe malfunctions, no awkward smile-with-sponsor photo ops, and no students crashing the post-event drinks in the Spiegeltent. Instead we had the ever-beaming Stacey Morrison in a studio in front of a harakeke flower display, two ‘ceremonies’ live-streaming on YouTube and stop-start winners’ speeches via Zoom.

We also had a somewhat unexpected parade of winners, and some interesting stats. The Best First Books winners — sponsored by cellular-science company MitoQ — were announced via a discrete programme live-streamed at six p.m. on Tuesday night. (One highlight: bright illustrations by Sarah Laing of the writers for whom each of the first-book awards are named.)



This year a number of first-time writers featured in all four main-category longlists, and debut books made it through to three of the shortlists. That meant three of the ‘Best First Book’ winners were no surprise at all: Shayne Carter for his memoir Dead People I Have Known (the only debut on the General Nonfiction shortlist); Chris McDowall and Tim Denee for the graphic marvel that is We Are Here: an Atlas of Aotearoa (the only debut on the Illustrated Nonfiction shortlist); and Becky Manawatu for her novel Auē (the only shortlisted Fiction debut).

Poetry was the category that offered no clues: three debut collections appeared on that longlist, and none on the shortlist. The choices were Jane Arthur’s Craven (VUP), Ransack by essa may ranapiri (VUP), and Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean by Sugar Magnolia Wilson (AUP).

The winner for best first book of poetry was Jane Arthur, who gave a short, elegant speech, thanking Paula Green, ‘the pilot light of New Zealand poetry’. (Green was a finalist in this year’s General Nonfiction category for Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry.) In 2018, Arthur won the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize, judged by iconic US writer Eileen Myles: Myles called her ‘a poet of scale and embodiment’. The Ockhams poetry judges said of the poems in Craven: ‘They did that thing that the best lyric poetry does: they showed us an emotional interior’.



The three debut poets on the Poetry longlist were all published by Auckland University Press and Victoria University Press, along with another longlisted book, Under Glass (AUP), Gregory Kan’s second collection. All four finalists for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry were also published by those same two university presses. The other two longlisted books were from Otago University Press — Lynley Edmeade’s second collection Listening In, and Back Before You Know by Murray Edmond, who published his first collection in 1973, before most of the other poets on the list were born. His publisher, artsy indie Compound, is the only non-University press here — surprising, perhaps, when the local poetry scene is so fertile, and 35 books were entered in this category.

This year’s longlist featured no Pasifika poets, only one Māori poet (ranapiri), and one Asian poet (Kan). Convenor of the Poetry judges, Kiri Piahana-Wong, noted the ‘dismaying’ statistic that under ten per cent of entered books were by ‘writers of colour’. (New collections are due in 2020 from Hinemoana Baker, Daren Kamali and Karlo Mila: maybe they’ll feature on next year’s longlist.)

The main awards were live-streamed at seven p.m., and launched with a video message from is-she-everywhere Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. The virtual ceremony was pacy, if not the rapid-fire of the Best First Books announcements. It was only slowed in its tracks a little by sponsor interludes — Mark Todd of Ockham Residential in a video, other sponsors via screen messages — and was nothing like the grim march of other recent online book awards (most infamously the Australian Stella Awards, which dragged on for an hour and handed out one prize). At the end, the technical chaos of the live winners’ speeches was a reminder of the perils of lockdown live-streaming.

One of the (more welcome) surprises of the night: the winners of the four categories each had different publishers: Auckland University Press for Poetry, Victoria University Press for General Nonfiction, Te Papa Press for Illustrated Nonfiction, and feisty indie Mākaro Press for Fiction. AUP or VUP were the only publishers in contention for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry, with four excellent finalists, including Anne Kennedy’s Moth Hour, Steven Toussaint’s Lay Studies and How I Get Ready by Ashleigh Young.



The winner was Helen Rickerby for How to Live (AUP).  How to Live is her fourth collection, a series of lists and playful digressions, essay-like discussions, investigations and ‘conversations’ with some of history’s ‘unsilent women’ — Hipparchia, George Eliot, Ban Zhao, Mary Shelley. Rickerby ‘brings her title question to the lives of women,’ wrote Paula Green on NZ Poetry Shelf, ‘in shifting forms and across diverse lengths, with both wit and acumen’. ‘How to Live is a great collection,’ declared Marcus Hobson. ‘It bills itself as poetry, but to me it feels like a book of poetry that has no poems. Instead we are constantly pushing the boundary as to what is a poem, what is prose and what is an essay’.

Testimony to our proactive and resourceful local lit scene: Rickerby herself is managing editor at the boutique Seraph Press, publisher of Nina Mingya Powles’ 2017 debut Luminescent.) First book winner Jane Arthur is one of the founders of NZ children’s literature website The Sapling.

Competition was similarly tight in the Illustrated Nonfiction category. ‘Our shortlist,’ wrote judging convenor Odessa Owens, ‘showcases just how good illustrated non-fiction can be when the literature, design and production are all of the highest quality’. Best First Book winner We Are Here (Massey UP) didn’t take the main prize, though might have won a popular vote: it’s already been reprinted twice. Justin Paton’s McCahon Country (Penguin Random House / Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki) edged Peter Simpson’s Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction, also on the longlist, and was picked by many to win the main prize.



Te Papa Press had two books on this list: one was Crafting Aotearoa, edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner. The other book took the $10,000 category award – Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance, edited by Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams and Puawai Cairns. ‘Readers are drawn into Aotearoa’s rich and raw stories from contact to now,’ said the judges. A ‘tactile, hand-hewn approach to design complements the huge variety of assiduously collected objects’.



The lack of review outlets in New Zealand – made even worse since the abrupt closure of Bauer media – means a stunning book like Protest Tautohetohe isn’t as well-known as it should be beyond the Te Papa book shop. Extracts, including images, have appeared on the Pantograph Punch and The Spinoff, but the book’s major review to date, by Simon Wilson in the NZ Herald, only peers out occasionally from behind the paywall. Wilson described Protest Tautohetohe as a collection of everything from the ephemeral to the political, ‘not a straight history, but a record of movements and events told through the presentation of objects … that somehow ended up in the collections of museums’.

The big story of the night: two of the Best First Book winners took away the main-category prizes as well. In General Non-Fiction, a category that is always keenly contested, Shayne Carter won for Dead People I Have Known. ‘Rock star writing,’ said the judges. Carter’s memoir had ridden a steady wave of positive reviews upon its release; fellow ‘80s rocker/writer (also lit festival impresario) Rachael King, writing in The Spinoff, praised ‘Shayne’s ability to fully recreate a scene as if he is standing right there experiencing it, and we are standing there with him’. Steve Braunias on Newsroom said the opening pages ‘stack up with the best writing of New Zealand childhood ever written’. In the Landfall Review Mark Broatch described the book as ‘a Venn diagram of insightful and often humorous personal revelation, an insider’s view of the Dunedin rock scene as the fast-beating young heart of New Zealand music, and of an upbringing in a household reeking with booze, domestic violence, psychiatric dismay – and love’.



When the Ockham longlist was announced back in January, there was a small flurry of complaints about the exclusion of creative nonfiction in favour of weightier works of scholarship like Vincent O’Malley’s The New Zealand Wars (BWB), Catherine Bishop’s colonial history Women Mean Business (Otago UP or Jared Davidson’s examination of censorship and subversion after World War I, Dead Letters (also OUP).

Memoir readers need not have worried. Since our national awards were re-invented under the Ockham banner in 2016, four of the five winners in the General Nonfiction category have been creative nonfiction writers rather than historians: Witi Ihimaera for his memoir Māori Boy (2016); Ashleigh Young’s essay collection Can You Tolerate This (2017); and Diana Wichtel’s memoir Driving to Treblinka (2018), also her first book. The only exception to date is 2019 winner Joanne Drayton for her biography Hudson and Halls: The Food of Love. Historians like O’Malley – who has published two major works of New Zealand history since 2016, and missed out on shortlistings both times – may be feeling each panel of judges leans towards memoir.

The winner of the $55,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction – a mouthful, but worth it for that much money – was debut novelist Becky Manawatu. The judges liked its its uniquely New Zealand voice, its sparing and often beautiful language’; international judge, Australian novelist Tara June Winch, said ‘there is something so assured and flawless in the delivery of the writing voice that is almost like acid on the skin’.



Becky Manawatu is first Māori writer to win the main fiction prize at our national book awards since 2012, when Paula Morris won for her novel Rangatira, and the first Māori writer to win best first book in fiction since Kelly Ana Morey with her novel Bloom in 2004. Manawatu is the first writer to win the main fiction prize with a debut novel since Stonedogs by Craig Marriner in 2002.

Arihia Latham in the Landfall Review said: ‘Manawatu has an ability to write grisly, horrifying details yet also keep one eye on our hearts. She builds tangible characters that have beauty and wonder, bright dreams and enduring strength.’ Last October Catherine Woulfe in The Spinoff wrote that Auē ‘hasn’t had a lot of attention yet, certainly no prizes, but holy shit, it should … It reminds me of The Bone People and of Once Were Warriors. The writing has a wild, intuitive sort of magic’. Steve Braunias called it the ‘best book of 2019 — and it really is immense, a deep and powerful work, maybe even the most successfully achieved portrayal of underclass New Zealand life since Once Were Warriors’. (That comparison again.)

Like Auē, Once Were Warriors won best first work of fiction (back in 1991), but placed second overall in the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards that year. Alan Duff didn’t win the main fiction prize until 1997, for What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?. Keri Hulme’s The Bone People won the main fiction category at the New Zealand Book Awards in 1984.

In the recent (endless) Stella Prize ceremony, we heard numerous times that in Australia women writers are less likely to win big prizes. This doesn’t seem so much of an issue in New Zealand. Since 2016, when Ockham Residential started sponsoring the awards, only one man has won the big fiction prize: Stephen Daisley for Coming Rain in 2016. Subsequent winners were Catherine Chidgey (2017), Pip Adam (2018), Fiona Kidman (2019) and, this year, the only woman in the category, Becky Manawatu.

In fact, aside from Daisley in 2016, you have to go back to 2007 and Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones to find another male winner in the fiction category. All the other winners during the final years of the Montana era and the entire New Zealand Post era of the awards were women: Charlotte Grimshaw, Emily Perkins, Alison Wong, Laurence Fearnley, Paula Morris, Kirsty Gunn and Eleanor Catton.

Poetry also skews a little to women writers: Helen Rickerby this year, Helen Heath (2019), Elizabeth Smither (2018), Andrew Johnson (2017), David Eggleton (2016), Vincent O’Sullivan (2014), Anne Kennedy (2013), Rhian Gallagher (2012), Kate Camp (2011), Brian Turner (2010), Jenny Bornholdt (2009), and so on into the mists of time.

The nonfiction categories are harder to assess, as pre the Ockhams era there were a phenomenal six categories (versus the current two): History, Biography, Environment, Lifestyle and Contemporary Culture, Illustrative, and Reference and Anthology. So many categories, not enough time. (Even the Pulitzer Prize only has three – History, Biography and General Nonfiction.)

‘A great book,’ said William Styron, ‘should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end’. As should a national book awards. Congratulations to all the longlisted writers, the shortlisted writers, and their publishers. Thanks to the sponsors and supporters who make the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards possible each year. With lockdown easing to Level 2, the rest of us have no excuse: we should buy the books.






Tom Moody is an American writer and editor living in Auckland.

'The thirty-five of us were in the country of dream-merchants, and strange things were bound to happen.' - Anne Kennedy

Read more