The shortlists for the Ockham NZ Book Awards, announced this week, revealed one big and long-awaited surprise.
Just last year, Kiri Piahana-Wong — convenor of judges for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry — said she was dismayed "to see that only a tiny number of writers of colour" were in contention for the prize.
Now, for the first time in the 50-plus years of book awards, the four poets shortlisted are Māori, Pasifika, Asian and Arab: Hinemoana Baker, Tusiata Avia, Nina Mingya Powles and Mohamed Hassan.
"This is a historic moment," says Piahana-Wong, an acclaimed poet herself and the publisher at Anahera Press. "It's massive. All I can think is, 'Finally.'"
None are debut writers: Avia and Baker are shortlisted for their fourth books. But only Avia has been a finalist before. For the other three writers, even the longlist was a first. "I feel a bit emotional," Powles says. "Young writers today might not, hopefully, need to look very far to find a really diverse, multilingual selection of poetry books."
"I've been on shortlists before," Avia says drily. Her guarded response to the shortlisting of The Savage Coloniser's Book is unsurprising. Only two Pasifika writers have ever won our biggest prize in poetry — David Eggleton (our current Poet Laureate) in 2016 and Alistair Campbell back in 1982, for his Collected Poems. Only two have won the best first book category, Selina Tusitala Marsh (in 2010) and Karlo Mila (2006).
If Hinemoana Baker's Funkhaus wins, she'll be the first Māori poet since the late Hone Tuwhare (in both 1998 and 2002) to take the top prize. The only Māori poet to win best first book is Tayi Tibble, for Poūkahangatus, in 2019.
A win by either Nina Powles or Mohamed Hassan would be a momentous first. No Asian poet has ever won this category. (Chris Tse won best first book, for How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, in 2016.) Mohamed Hassan is the first Muslim poet to be shortlisted at our national book awards, the first native Arabic speaker and the first born-in-Egypt New Zealander.
The shortlist also reflects the international, urban lives and influences of many of our writers. Both Hassan and Powles are in New Zealand now, visiting family, but will soon return to working lives in London. Hassan was born in Cairo, his family emigrating to Auckland when he was 8; he's also worked as a journalist in Istanbul. Powles, the daughter of diplomats, has lived in Wellington, Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia and Shanghai: Magnolia 木蘭, she says, is in part a collection of love letters to Shanghai.
In 2016 Baker went to Berlin for a year as the Creative NZ writer-in-residence and stayed, embracing the art and music scene there. The cover photo of Funkhaus, taken by Ashley Clark, in the hallway of Baker's former flat in Berlin in an ex-chocolate factory, "now an arts and activism collective called Schokoladen". Reading the collection now, she says, "feels like a song of longing — for home, for things and places and people held dear".
The list reveals some of the tensions of a "multicultural" New Zealand and the challenges for writers. Hassan, shortlisted for his collection National Anthem, says he's "crafting a skill in an alien language that equally upholds the ancient poetic tradition of my ancestors, but also betrays it".
The shortlisting offers Hassan a different sort of stage for his work. "I feel the responsibility of speaking and writing and performing wherever I can, in front of as many people as I can, because so many from my community don't get to exist here. I've always felt the need for us as immigrants to demand space and attention but more so after Christchurch. Having spent a lifetime being asked and expected to remain invisible, doing the opposite can sometimes feel like rebellion."
Powles understands that notion of invisibility. "I used to be nervous about using non-English words or characters in a poem — because they didn't teach us poems like that in school or at uni." The increased visibility of Asian NZ poets helped her overcome her nerves. "The year Chris Tse's book won in the awards was the year I was just beginning to see myself as a poet, and beginning to discover other Aotearoa Chinese poets, which had a profound impact on me."
For Hassan, the guiding lights were "the living tradition of Māori and Pasifika writers" who "fought to open spaces in the literary world against insurmountable odds." In the process, he says, "they made space for voices like mine."
"Our voices are here and have been for a long time," says Avia. Baker agrees. "We're all on this shortlist because we deserve to be — as writers, as artists, as poets. For once, the richness that some of us have known is there all along is being foregrounded, as it should be. Ka mau te wehi, shortlist whānau!"
Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai) is a fiction writer and essayist, and the founder of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are on May 12.