Chch-raised writer wins award for 'special and strange' poetry

Grace Yee with her poetry collection, Chinese Fish. Photo: Instagram @graceyeepoet
Grace Yee with her poetry collection, Chinese Fish. Photo: Instagram @graceyeepoet
Christchurch-raised writer Grace Yee's poetry collection, Chinese Fish, and an "unforgettable" novel by Wellington writer Emily Perkins were among the big winners at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Perkins took out the country's top literary prize for the second time, winning the $65,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, with her novel Lioness, which explores themes of wealth, class and female mid-life reckoning. In 2009, she won it with her book Novel About My Wife.

The judges described Lioness as "an incisive exploration of wealth, power, class, female rage, and the search for authenticity".

"[Perkins'] acute observations and razor-sharp wit decimate the tropes of mid-life in moments of pure prose brilliance, leaving the reader gasping for more. Disturbing, deep, smart, and funny as hell, Lioness is unforgettable."

For Perkins, the novel isn't a satire and she wasn't trying to judge the characters from a distance. "I'm trying to look at complicity and to understand what it feels like from the inside and why sometimes it's hard to make change in what might be for some people be a very comfortable life," she told Morning Report.

"I hope it's also an empathetic book".

"For me, humour is a great way to convey a lot of the things that I think about and things that trouble me, and political things that bother me. I want the book to give pleasure and to be entertaining and provocative."

Yee, a poet and writer, took out the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry for her first collection: Chinese Fish.

Poetry category convenor Erik Kennedy said Yee's craft was remarkable.

"In Chinese Fish, Yee cooks up a rich variety of poetic material into a book that is special and strange; this is poetry at its urgent and thrilling best."

Writer, poet, artist and curator Gregory O'Brien won the Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction for Don Binney: Flight Path. Category convenor Lynn Freeman said even as an experienced biographer, O'Brien achieved a near impossible task.

"He has encapsulated the artist's full life, honestly portraying his often contrary personality, and carefully interrogating a formidably large body of work and its place in Aotearoa New Zealand's history."

AUT vice chancellor, interdisciplinary scholar and acclaimed author Damon Salesa won the General Non-Fiction Award for his work, An Indigenous Ocean: Pacific Essays.

Emily Perkins. Photo: Ebony Lamb
Emily Perkins. Photo: Ebony Lamb
Category convenor of judges Jim Tully said the book was "scholarly but highly accessible".

"An Indigenous Ocean weaves together academic rigour, captivating stories and engaging prose to reframe our understanding of New Zealand's colonial history in the South Pacific."

Esteemed academic, Waitangi Tribunal member, and Kingi Tūheitia's 'Council of Twelve' member Tā Pou Temara (Ngāi Tūhoe) was presented with the 2024 Te Mūrau o te Tuhi Māori Language Award for Te Rautakitahi O Tūhoe ki Ōrākau.

Judge Paraone Gloyne (Raukawa ki Wharepūhunga, Ngāti Maniapoto) said the book, written entirely in te reo Māori, was a valuable account of the Tūhoe men and women who went to fight with Ngāti Maniapoto in the Battle of Ōrākau during the New Zealand Wars.

"Aotearoa is fortunate to have in its canon a book of this significance, written by one of Aotearoa's leading Māori public intellectuals."

The Poetry, Illustrated Non-Fiction, General Non-Fiction and Te Mūrau o te Tuhi award recipients were each presented with $12,000 in prize money.

Four Best First Books were also presented at the ceremony. Winners received $3000 and a 12-month membership subscription to the New Zealand Society of Authors.

Ruin and Other Stories by Emma Hislop (Kāi Tahu) won the Hubert Church Prize for Fiction. At the Point of Seeing by Megan Kitching was awarded the Jessie Mackay Prize for Poetry. The Judith Binney Prize for Illustrated Non-Fiction went to Rugby League in New Zealand: A People's History by Ryan Bodman, and There's a Cure for This by Emma Wehipeihana (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Porou) received the EH McCormick Prize for General Non-Fiction.