It began with an umlaut, and ended with an essay award.

An umlaut is two dots, placed over a vowel, usually in German, to indicate a different vowel quality.

"Like a macron in Maori," Whanganui author Airini Beautrais explained.

It was the inspiration that won her this year's essay competition in Landfall, New Zealand's longest running literary journal, published by Otago University Press.

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"My children have a German surname and it has an umlaut. It caused a lot of problems with passports and the like."

Competition judge David Eggleton said the essay stood out as "written by someone unwilling to be boring, willing to take risks, and enough of a seasoned practitioner to carry it off with sustained verve."

Ms Beautrais titled her essay, perhaps unsurprisingly, Umlaut, which started life as a poem.

"But the notes I put together seemed to lend themselves to an essay. As I wrote it and considered the issues around names, language and culture I found a lot of anger surfaced, but also a lot of humour. I was surprised how emotional this piece of writing became for me."

It also served as creative release from the more disciplined writing involved in her PHd, which she completed earlier this year. "The PHd kept me company for three years. The essay was more personal."

Umlaut was her first entry into at an essay competition. "It looks good on a cv, a confidence booster and there was a financial prize."

Ms Beautrais is nonetheless an accomplished writer. She has published three books of poetry. Secret Heart won first book award at the 2007 New Zealand book awards and she plans to publish a fourth collection of poetry in June, inspired by the Whanganui River.