Whanganui writer Airini Beautrais has won the coveted fiction prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards with a “provocative” collection of short stories, taking the largest-ever purse of $57,000.
It was a surprise win, for a number of reasons. Beautrais’ book Bug Week is only the second collection of short stories to win the fiction category in 53 years – after Charlotte Grimshaw in 2008, with Opportunity – and she is best known as a poet, having released four collections of poetry.
She was chosen over two previous winners, Catherine Chidgey (The Wish Child, 2017) and Pip Adam (The New Animals, 2018), and Brannavan Gnanalingam, who was also shortlisted in 2018.
“No one expected this,” says Paula Morris, a trustee of the New Zealand Book Awards Trust, which governs the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, announced in a ceremony at Auckland’s Aotea Centre.
“Short stories are often the poor relation in the minds of readers, publishers and bookshops. It’s a very special collection, it’s incisive and provocative. This book will whammy a lot of readers. The final story is so unsettling and imaginative that you’ll want to hide the book from your children.”
Fiction judge convenor Kiran Dass described Bug Week as “a tightly-wound and remarkably assured collection. Atmospheric and refined, these stories evoke a strong sense of quiet unease, slow burning rage and the absurdly comic”.
Beautrais teaches health science at UCOL and has a PhD in creative writing. She credits her study with helping her challenge traditional story forms.
“I think we have tight genre boundaries to make library and bookstore shelving, and award categories, manageable,” she said in conversation with the other fiction finalists on the Academy of New Zealand Literature website. “But I like to think as writers we have the freedom to blur the distinctions and just make what we want to make.”
Morris said it was a milestone year for the Book Awards, with an exciting, diverse lineup of writers both new and established.
Tusiata Avia is the first Pasifika woman to win best book of poetry, with Savage Coloniser, a piece of work that – like Bug Week – defies conventions.
“This collection is provocative and political,” says Morris. “Both Selina [Tusitala Marsh] and I have already taught this book to our students. Both books are very artful.”
Vincent O’Sullivan (at 83 the oldest finalist; best first book of nonfiction winner Madison Hamill is the youngest) won the general non-fiction category, with The Dark is Light Enough, a biography of his longtime friend, artist Ralph Hotere.
Celebrated Wellington chef Monique Fiso won the illustrated non-fiction category (and best first book of illustrated non-fiction) for her treasury of Māori food, Hia Kai.
Te Mūrau o te Tuhi, a discretionary Māori Language Award, went to academic Tā Tīmoti Kāretu for Mātāmua ko te Kupu!, which draws on his life’s work composing, performing and teaching haka and waiata.
Morris made special note of the winners coming out of indie publishers like Mākaro Press (best first book of fiction for Rachel Kerr’s Victory Park) and Compound Press (best first book of poetry for Jackson Nieuwland’s I Am a Human Being).
Mākaro Press also published last year’s fiction winner, Auē, by Becky Manawatu.
“Something is going right at our small, independent presses,” Morris said. “They are picking winners and they are helping people get into print who would otherwise struggle to get into print.”
The general non-fiction, poetry, illustrated non-fiction and Māori Language Award winners each received a $10,000 prize. The first book winners each took home $2500.
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