Ihimaera wins $50,000 arts prize despite plagiarism row

By Andrew Koubaridis

Witi Ihimaera alluded at the ceremony to the furore. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Witi Ihimaera alluded at the ceremony to the furore. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Author Witi Ihimaera was last night presented with a prestigious arts award and a $50,000 prize - a week after he was caught up in a plagiarism row.

The writer of Whale Rider was embarrassed by revelations that his latest novel, The Trowenna Sea, contains passages by other authors without attribution.

He apologised for the oversight, which he said amounted to less than 0.4 per cent of what had been published, and promised any future editions of the book would include proper acknowledgments.

Despite the controversy, he has been named a laureate by the Arts Foundation. The honour comes with a cheque for $50,000.

Carver Lyonel Grant, musicians Chris Knox and Richard Nunns and photographer Anne Noble were also named laureates at last night's awards ceremony at the ASB Showgrounds in Greenlane.

Ihimaera made no specific mention of the scandal, but in a speech that lasted about 10 minutes alluded to the furore.

"I would rather be someone else this week. Any of you are welcome to be Witi Ihimaera."

Yesterday, Arts Foundation executive director Simon Bowden defended the selection of Ihimaera so soon after the controversy.

"The award itself is for a lifetime of work and is an investment in someone's future ... He's an extraordinary artist."

Mr Bowden accepted the plagiarism was a "serious matter" but said Ihimaera was trying to make things right "as much as he can".

Ihimaera had told the foundation of the plagiarism claim before it became public and it did generate discussion among the selectors.

However, Mr Bowden said those things weren't enough to change their minds because Ihimaera was an artist whose writing had been enjoyed by generations. Though Mr Bowden had had only positive reaction from those he had spoken to about the issue, he accepted there could be some adverse feedback from the arts community. He believed most would congratulate the Arts Foundation on carrying on with the award.

Ihimaera said he hoped the plagiarism issue wouldn't overshadow the award.

"I take the long view ... that every author goes through a controversy at one part of their career. I do believe my entire career models the best ethical behaviour that is required of all artists in New Zealand."

He was grateful for the support he'd received from the foundation which would help him move past the controversy. He apologised again to those he failed to acknowledge, which was "inadvertent and regretful".

He planned to use the $50,000 prize to support himself while he wrote more historical novels - including a follow-up to The Trowenna Sea and another novel set in New York. He is retiring from his position as a professor at Auckland University next year.

Ihimaera said he had been unsure if he should accept the award because he didn't think he was good enough, but was "honoured and humbled" by it.

- NZ Herald

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