West coast writer Becky Manawatu is the big winner at this year's Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Manawatu took out two top honours, the $55,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction and best first novel award for her book Auē. In doing so, she edged out more experienced writers Owen Marshall (Pearly Gates), Carl Shuker (A Mistake) and David Vann (Halibut on the Moon). She also won the Hubert Church Prize for a best first book of fiction.

The last time a best first book won the overall fiction prize was 2002 when Craig Marriner won both awards for Stonedogs.

Auē, put out by independent Wellington publisher Mākaro in August, has received high praise from reviewers and been compared to Keri Hulme's Booker Award-winning The Bone People. Herald reviewer Kiran Dass says Auē is the book she'll put in customers' hands once the bookstore where she works, Time Out in Mt Eden, reopens. Dass says the novel is extraordinary.


"This is the kind of social realist New Zealand fiction I'm thrilled to see being published in New Zealand... This is a real punch-in-the-guts kind of novel but while it deals with themes of domestic violence, gang culture, grief and fractured families and, is at times, a heartbreaking read, it is also a beautifully pitched and nuanced hopeful story about the power of love, friendship and family. It shifts perspectives between characters, and the skillful way Manawatu captures the inner world and voice of each character feels vibrant and authentic."

The comments were reflected by judges Mark Broatch, Nic Low and Chris Baskett, who described Auē as "mere pounamu" (a most valuable greenstone item). They noted the violence, sadness and rawness in this book but also buoyant humour, remarkable insights into the minds of children and young men, incredible forgiveness and a massive suffusion of love.

"With its uniquely New Zealand voice, its sparing and often beautiful language, the novel patiently weaves the strands of its tale into an emotionally enveloping korowai, or cloak."

Auē is the story of orphaned Arama, who is deposited in rural Kaikōura with relatives, and his brother Taukiri, a young man fending for himself in the big smoke. Manawatu, who is a reporter for the Westport News, dedicated the book to her cousin Glen Bo Duggan, who was killed when he was 10 years old. Glen lived with Manawatu's family for two years before moving; she was 11 when he was murdered.

She told the New Zealand Herald earlier this year: "It is an event that never leaves; it's not just me but my whole family who are forever affected by it. That this book has done so well, hopefully, it will continue to open up conversations about children in New Zealand."

Manawatu is tentatively working on a second novel, which also has its roots in a childhood experience where, she says, she did a "terrible thing" and, for no good reason, squashed a fly against a windowpane when she was 5 or 6 years old.

She was haunted by the act, especially as live maggots burst out of the dead fly. Watching a nature documentary about termites destroying a structure left her terrified that insects would eat the family home as revenge for what she'd done to the fly.

"I was so young… I have no idea if I ended up telling anyone," she says of sharing her fears.

Manawatu wasn't the only double winner. Dunedin musician Shayne Carter won the General Non-Fiction category for Dead People I Have Known, where he was up against Sarah Gaitanos (Shirley Smith: An Examined Life), Paula Green (Wild Honey: Reading NZ Women's Poetry) and Sarah Myles (Towards the Mountain: A Story of Grief and Hope Forty Years on from Erebus). Carter also received the E.H. McCormick Prize for a best first work of General Non-Fiction.


Wellington writer, editor and publisher Helen Rickerby won the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry for her collection How to Live. Poet Jane Arthur's Craven won the Jessie Mackay Prize for a best first book of poetry. Arthur, an editor for the New Zealand Educational Institute Magazine, says winning an award feels especially surreal at the moment.

"It's a big surprise; hearing the news was like having a bit more connection with the world," says Arthur, who has spent lockdown with her partner, toddler, three stepchildren and two dogs.

"It means there's been no time to think about poetry. I do hope there will be other books, though."

Three Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa curators - Stephanie Gibson, Matariki WIlliams (Tūhoe, Te Atiawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Hauiti) and Puawai Cairns (Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāiterangi) - won the Illustrated Non-Fiction Award for their work Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance.

The Judith Binney Prize for a best first work of Illustrated Non-Fiction went to Tim Denee and Chris McDowall for We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa.

Becky Manawatu is one of three authors appearing in this AWF Sunday's Winter Series. Watch 9-10am this Sunday, May 17 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jt9gEDtFd0