One left school at 12 years old to go out to work, the other grew up in a household steeped in art and literature, and the third, with Greek and Ukrainian heritage, settled in New Zealand 50 years ago.

While dramatist and fiction writer Renee, art critic, curator and poet Wystan Curnow and poet, publisher and librettist Michael Harlow have disparate backgrounds, they share a commitment to local literature. These contributions have now been recognised with Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement.

PM Jacinda Ardern announced the annual prizes after on Monday afternoon, describing the trio as incredible writers with impressive bodies of work who have created a legacy by leading and nurturing other New Zealand writers.

Set up in 2003, recipients receive $60,000 each and are chosen from public nominations, with New Zealanders putting forward the names of writers they feel have made a significant contribution to local fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Writers can also nominate themselves. A selection panel then assesses the awards, making recommendations to the Arts Council of Creative New Zealand for approval.


Renee, now 89 and the fiction award-winner, says she has no intention of retiring any time soon because she was brought up with a strong work ethic and thrives on writing and teaching others.

Of Ngāti Kahungunu and Irish-English-Scots ancestry, she left school at 12, working in woollen mills, a printing factory, a grocery-dairy and eventually as a feature writer and reviewer.

At 50, she completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Auckland and started writing for community theatre, radio, television and organising programmes for the Globe Theatre in Dunedin.

Now regarded as one of our most influential feminist writers, she is the author of several novels but is perhaps best known for Wednesday To Come, the first in a trilogy of plays about four women of four generations in a single family. Her most recent work These Two Hands: A Memoir tells the story of her eventful life.

"I'm so lucky to be able to still work — there's a bit pf physical deterioration but my brain remains solid; the other way around is a tragedy," says Renee. "It's hugely important to keep working but, as I say, I'm lucky and I have a job that I love. Writing and teaching are the things I love most in life."

Her community creative writing classes are booked into the middle of next year and Renee is also working on her first crime novel. She says she grew bored with teaching poetry and decided to explore a new genre which meant writing a book herself to gain the necessary practical experience.

Meanwhile Wystan Curnow, 79 and the recipient of the non-fiction award, says the honour is good for one's self-esteem. Having published six collections of poetry, authored or edited 18 books on art and literary criticism and curated more than 20 exhibitions here and overseas, he says the non-fiction category is an interesting one to be in.

"I like the category, it's full of very different kinds of writing and stands as a sort of 'bigger picture category'. I am a person with an appetite for the bigger picture in terms of our culture and enlarging our perceptions of ourselves as well as challenging those."


Growing up as the son of a famous father, the poet Allen Curnow, was both a privilege and a problem, says Curnow, noting it heightened people's expectations — and, perhaps, his own — of his work.

However, early exposure to writing, reading and art defined his life and he paid tribute to his mother, painter and printmaker Elizabeth, for encouraging his interest in visual arts. A former university lecturer, he wants to write a new book about acclaimed artist Colin McCahon.

Like Renee, Curnow says he can't imagine not working.

"It's exciting and I'm somebody who has never been short of an idea; I have more ideas than I can handle."

As a publisher and editor, Michael Harlow, the recipient of the poetry award, put into print the early work of some of our leading poets including Michele Leggott, Gregory O'Brien, Murray Edmond and Bernadette Hall. Born in the United States, Harlow has been in New Zealand since 1968 but publishing, literary festival appearances, judging local and international awards and teaching have seen him travel the world.

The awards will be presented at Premier House in Wellington next Monday.