Any awards shortlist is bound to both delight, surprise and infuriate - and this year's selection of finalists for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards is no exception. Some of the most high-profile books from the longlists — including well-reviewed novels by Stephanie Johnson, Kirsten McDougall and Sue Orr, and Rebecca Macfie's biography of Helen Kelly — have been swept away. Some of our top writers were overlooked entirely on the longlists — Vincent O'Sullivan, Elizabeth Smither, C.K. Stead — and there was the usual social media outrage about the snubbing of various popular favourites.
But not all inclusions are surprises, and the shortlist of 16 — four per category — reveal plenty of good news about the quality, ambition and diversity of our local writing and publishing scene. There are some familiar names, like Anne Kennedy — a two-time previous winner —in the poetry category, and historian Vincent O'Malley in General Non-fiction with his acclaimed book Voices from the New Zealand Wars.
Alongside O'Malley sit memoirs by two of our most accomplished fiction writers, Patricia Grace and Charlotte Grimshaw. Grimshaw's The Mirror Book, exploring growing up in the literary Stead household, was one of 2021's publishing sensations, topping numerous best-of-the-year lists. "Most readers say the book has made them think about their own families and the complexity of their own experiences," Grimshaw told the Academy of New Zealand Literature in December. "To me, the most superficial and irrelevant response is to call the book 'literary gossip' and to wonder what in it is 'true.' (It's all true.)"
Grace, the first Māori woman to publish a novel and a past winner at our national book awards, will be pleased by this year's fiction shortlist. Among the novels in contention for the $60,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize are two by Māori women writers, the first time in several decades that there's been more than one Māori finalist. "I was thrilled to see Alice [Tawhai] and Rebecca [K. Reilly] on the longlist," says Whiti Hereaka, an accomplished YA writer whose stunning myth-subverting novel, Kurangaituku, is a finalist alongside Reilly. "I think it bodes well for the Māori literary community that these novels — which are so different from one another — have been recognised.
"I hope that it signals that we, as Māori, are not a monolith — that we have diversity of story and storytellers among us. And I hope that when I mentor Māori writers that they can now put aside the worry that whatever they are writing is not 'Māori' enough and that they can write in whatever genre or style that they want or need to."
Hereaka points out that five of the 10 fiction bestsellers on last week's Nielsen chart were by Māori and Pasifika writers: Reilly's exuberant debut novel, Greta & Valdin, was at number one. Another 20-something Māori writer features on the poetry shortlist. The smart, street-wise Tayi Tibble is the only Māori poet to win best first book of poetry at our national book awards. If she takes home the Mary and Peter Biggs Award at this year's Ockhams, she'll be the first Māori poet in 20 years to win the top prize. The last Māori winner was the late Hone Tuwhare, in 2002.
"It brings me so much joy to see three wāhine Māori as well as Pasifika poet Serie Barford on the poetry longlist," says Kiri Piahana-Wong, a poet, former Ockhams judge and Barford's publisher at the tiny Anahera Press. Tibble's fellow Māori poets on the longlist were debut writers Ruby Solly and Nicole Titihuia Hawkins, both still in the running for best first book.
Piahana-Wong notes the other big story of this year's shortlists. "It's heartening to see so many small press publishers making their mark on the publishing scene. This diversity across both authors and their publishers enriches New Zealand literature and means that diverse groups can finally start to see themselves/ourselves represented in our literary canon."
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Small and independent presses feature in every category this year. Bridget Williams Books publishes Vincent O'Malley and also one of the shortlisted books in Illustrated Non-fiction, Lucy Mackintosh's Shifting Grounds: Deep Histories of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, a runaway sales success. "We're thrilled with the reader response to Shifting Grounds," says Tom Rennie, publisher at BWB, a book that "connects powerfully to the engagement that people have today with place and history."
Mackintosh is a debut writer: her book began life as a PhD thesis. Rennie points out that Claudia Orange's landmark 1987 book on the Treaty of Waitangi was also originally a PhD and suggests Shifting Grounds may have a similar "extraordinary impact".
Another Illustrated finalist is Qiane Matata-Sipu's NUKU: Stories of 100 Indigenous Women — the only self-published book to make the shortlists, and another sales success, already in its second printing with international orders mounting. The project was a four-year labour of love for a team of "friends and whānau" working around other jobs.
The shortlisting, Matata-Sipu says, vindicates their commitment to "story sovereignty. "I am stoked to see a self-published book in the running against pukapuka with experienced teams, dedicated budgets and a record of accomplishments. It is an exciting disruption of expectations.
"There has been significant sweat equity invested in NUKU. Seeing this mahi and the voices of these powerful wāhine toa recognised at this level is a beautiful acknowledgement of this hard work."
The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards will take place on May 11. Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai) is a fiction writer and essayist and spokesperson for the New Zealand Book Awards Trust.