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Vincent O’Sullivan won the general non-fiction category at last night’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for his biographical work The Dark is Light Enough: Ralph Hotere A Biographical Portrait.
Whanganui writer Airini Beautrais has won the premier award for her book Bug Week - her first book of fiction and the first time the category has been won by a collection of short stories in more than a decade.
Beautrais won the $57,000 fiction award with a book that convener of judges Kiran Dass described as a knockout from start to finish.
O’Sullivan’s triumph meant the author has now won national awards for fiction, poetry and non-fiction.
Category convener Dr Sarah Shieff called the book an “extraordinary achievement” and said O’Sullivan displayed “masterly skill in the layering of information, observation and anecdote”.
“This is a sensitive, detailed portrait of one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most important modern artists, shaped around the four pou of [Ralph] Hotere’s identity: his Maoritanga, his faith, his whenua, and his whanau,” she said.
The book had been a long time in the making as O’Sullivan began work on it more than a decade ago but issues arose around permission to use Hotere’s work.
He was eventually convinced to resume the project but the access to images remained a problem and, as a result, the book contains no photos of the artist’s pieces.
“It doesn’t matter how much you describe a painting, it’s never a substitute,” O’Sullivan said after being shortlisted for the Ockhams.
Departing from fiction had come with its challenges too, the author said.
“The good thing about writing fiction is no-one cares if it’s the truth or not and you can let yourself go.
"With fiction, you don’t owe much to anyone but yourself."
Book awards trustee Paula Morris said the quality and variety of the work this year reflected the good health of the country’s literary industry.