Back in February I posted on the long longlist of 44 books in four categories for the New Zealand Book Awards 2023, also known as “the ockhams”. The shortlist whittled that down to 16 titles and now we have a set of winners in each of those four categories and a handful of ‘Best First Book’ prizes.
No surprise that the winning novel that has captivated not just the nation (winning The People’s Choice), but also the twitterverse, narrated by Tama the magpie, @TamaMagpie, Catherine Chidgey’s The Axeman’s Carnival won the $64,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction.
I’m very much looking forward to reading this, and hoping that since Europa Editions UK published her excellent novel Remote Sympathy in 2021, it won’t be long before we see this novel available in Europe and the rest of the English reading world.
Chidgey’s masterful writing explores the diversifying of rural life, the predicament of childlessness, the ageing champ, and domestic violence. She provides a perspicacious take on the invidious nature of social media and a refreshingly complex demonstration of feminist principle.
“The unforgettable Tama – taken in and raised by Marnie on the Te Waipounamu high country farm she shares with champion axeman husband Rob – constantly entertains with his take on the foibles and dramas of his human companions. Catherine Chidgey’s writing is masterful, and the underlying sense of dread as the story unfolds is shot through with humour and humanity.
“The Axeman’s Carnival is unique: poetic, profound and a powerfully compelling read from start to finish.”
I was particularly intrigued by acclaimed Māori poet and scholar, Alice Te Punga Somerville’s poetry collection, Always Italicise, How To Write While Colonised and was pleased to see it win this category.
‘Always italicise foreign words’, a friend of the poet was cautioned. Alice Te Punga Somerville does exactly that. With humour and rage, regret and compassion, she ponders ‘how to write while colonised’ – penning poetry in English as a Māori writer; tracing connections between Aotearoa, New Zealand and the greater Pacific region, Indigenous and colonial worlds; reflecting on being the only Māori person in a workplace; and how – and why – to do the mahi anyway.
“Readers are challenged but crucially invited in to accept that challenge and reach a new understanding of what it is to be a Māori woman scholar, mother and wife in 2022 encountering and navigating uncomfortable and hostile spaces.
“Always Italicise stood out amongst a very strong field for its finely crafted, poetically fluent and witty explorations of racism, colonisation, class, language and relationships. It’s a fine collection, establishing and marking a new place to stand.”
General Non-Fiction & Illustrated Non-Fiction
Broadcaster, music critic and author Nick Bollinger won the Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction for Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Drawing on archival research and rich personal narratives, Nick Bollinger has written a compelling account of an epoch-making period, linking international trends to the local context in a purposeful-yet-playful way.
“A joy to read and to hold, Jumping Sundays is a fantastic example of scholarship, creativity and craft.”
Historian and lawyer Ned Fletcher won the General Non-Fiction Award for his work, The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi, shedding new light on New Zealand’s founding document’s implications, contributing fresh thinking to what remains a very live conversation for those that call Aotearoa New Zealand home. The treaty was made between the British Crown and about 540 Māori rangatira (chiefs) on February 6, 1840.
Best First Books
Home Theatre by Anthony Lapwood, a collection of interlinked short stories won the Hubert Church Prize for Fiction; Khadro Mohamed’s We’re All Made of Lightning takes the reader to distant lands, Egypt and Somalia, in heightened sensory language as she grieves for her homeland, winner of the Jessie MacKay Prize for Poetry; the Judith Binney Illustrated non-fiction, first book award went to Christall Lowe’s Kai ,which offers whānau stories and recipes that provide wider insight into te ao Māori, creating a homage to food that is grounded in tradition yet modern, the new Edmonds!
Finally, the E.H. McCormick Prize for General Non-fiction and the book I am currently reading, (left with me by a friend visiting from NZ) went to Noelle McCarthy for Grand, Becoming My Mother’s Daughter. This book was running neck-a-neck with The Axeman’s Carnival for The People’s Choice, up until the last few days, when Chidgey’s book surged ahead.
An exquisite debut, it masterfully weaves together the threads of Noelle McCarthy’s life, and her relationship with her mother, in a memoir that connects with truths that unite us all. Poignant and poetic language renders scenes with honesty and colour. Intimate, but highly accessible, the fragility and turbulence of the mother-daughter relationship is at times brutally detailed. Despite this, Grand is an uplifting memoir, delicate and self-aware, and a credit to McCarthy’s generosity and literary deftness.
A Special Mention
One that didn’t win, but that was Number 4 in The People’s Choice and one I have heard a lot about and sighted on a recent visit to London, is Robin White: Something Is Happening Here.
Described as more than an exhibition turned art book. It features stunning reproductions, historical essays and the insights of two dozen contributors that do justice to the institution that is Robin White. As iconic screenprints flow seamlessly into large format barkcloth, White’s border-crossing practice is temporally divided with the savvy use of typographic spreads. Space, too, is given to the voices of her Kiribati, Fijian and Tongan co-collaborators.
More recently in her life, collaboration with others has become important, a way of working in the space between cultures, enriching and liberating from the confines of self.
Strikingly elegant yet comprehensive, excellence is what’s happening here.
Check out Robin White’s Artist Profile here.