2023 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards winners named

Novel that New Zealanders have ‘clasped to their hearts’ wins country’s richest writing prize.

Celebrated New Zealand writer Catherine Chidgey has won the $64,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the 2023 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for The Axeman’s Carnival – a page-turning novel of depth, pathos and humanity that skilfully infuses comedy with a building sense of menace, narrated by a precocious magpie called Tama.

Ms Chidgey received the fiction prize ahead of screenwriter and author Michael Bennett (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue) (Better the Blood); historian and novelist Monty Soutar (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki, Ngāti Kahungunu) (Kāwai: For Such a Time as This); and sailor and novelist Cristina Sanders (Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant).

It is the second time Catherine Chidgey has won the big-ticket fiction prize offered since 2016 thanks to the late Jann Medlicott – the first writer to do so. She won the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize in 2017 for The Wish Child. Both books are published by Te Herenga Waka University Press.

The Fiction category’s convenor of judges, Stephanie Johnson, says The Axeman’s Carnival is a novel that has been clasped to New Zealanders’ hearts.

“The unforgettable Tama – taken in and raised by Marnie on the Te Waipounamu high country farm she shares with champion axeman husband Rob – constantly entertains with his take on the foibles and dramas of his human companions. Catherine Chidgey’s writing is masterful, and the underlying sense of dread as the story unfolds is shot through with humour and humanity.

“The Axeman’s Carnival is unique: poetic, profound and a powerfully compelling read from start to finish.”

Scholar, poet and irredentist Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Āti Awa, Taranaki) has won the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry for Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised (Auckland University Press).

Poetry category convenor Diane Brown says Ms Te Punga Somerville’s collection voyages out like a waka seeking new ground.

“Readers are challenged but crucially invited in to accept that challenge and reach a new understanding of what it is to be a Māori woman scholar, mother and wife in 2022 encountering and navigating uncomfortable and hostile spaces.

“Always Italicise stood out amongst a very strong field for its finely crafted, poetically fluent and witty explorations of racism, colonisation, class, language and relationships. It’s a fine collection, establishing and marking a new place to stand.”

Broadcaster, music critic and author Nick Bollinger has won the Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction for Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand (Auckland University Press). 

Category convenor Jared Davidson says Jumping Sundays is a triumph of production and design.

“The cover alone is one of the best of the year and signals the visual excellence that follows: vibrant endpapers, distinctive typography and bountiful images on an appropriately uncoated stock. Yet Jumping Sundays is more than just a well-designed book. Drawing on archival research and rich personal narratives, Nick Bollinger has written a compelling account of an epoch-making period, linking international trends to the local context in a purposeful-yet-playful way.

“A joy to read and to hold, Jumping Sundays is a fantastic example of scholarship, creativity and craft.”

Historian and lawyer Ned Fletcher has won the General Non-Fiction Award for his work, The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi (Bridget Williams Books).

Category convenor of judges Anna Rawhiti-O’Connell says Fletcher's book is a meticulously constructed work of scholarship that provides surprising and essential analysis of Te Tiriti.

“The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi will shift and inform debates about the intentions of those who constructed and signed the Treaty and how we interpret it today. Fletcher’s comprehensive examination sheds new light on the document's implications and contributes fresh thinking to what remains a very live conversation for all of us that call this country home.”

Four Best First Book Awards, supported this year by the Mātātuhi Foundation, were also presented at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards ceremony.

Hubert Church Prize for Fiction

Home Theatre by Anthony Lapwood (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Whakaue, Pākehā) (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Jessie Mackay Prize for Poetry

We’re All Made of Lightning by Khadro Mohamed (We Are Babies Press, Tender Press)

Judith Binney Prize for Illustrated Non-Fiction

Kai: Food Stories and Recipes from my Family Table by Christall Lowe (Ngāti Kauwhata, Tainui, Ngāti Maniapoto) (Bateman Books)

E.H. McCormick for General Non-Fiction

Grand: Becoming my Mother’s Daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin, Penguin Random House)

Each Best First Book Award winner received $3,000 and a 12-month membership subscription to the New Zealand Society of Authors.

New Zealand Book Awards Trust Te Ohu Tiaki i Te Rau Hiringa spokesperson Jenna Todd (Kāi Tahu) says this year’s winners are a demonstration of the quality and virtuosity of Aotearoa writers today.

“It’s a joy to celebrate these innovative, thought-provoking, conversation-starting books across fiction, poetry, general non-fiction and illustrated non-fiction; each of them singing and fizzing and demanding to be read.

“These titles of excellence are a tribute to the broad range of publishers who produced them, from the boutique to the established and multinational. Publishers are the power houses behind these books and also deserve the recognition.”

The 2023 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards’ judges were: Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction:  bestselling author, critic and creative writing teacher Stephanie Johnson (convenor); editor and literature assessor John Huria (Ngāi Tahu, Muaūpoko, Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, Ngāti Rangi); Wellington bookseller Jemma Morrison; and British writer, publisher and host of the books podcast Backlisted, John Mitchinson (UK).

Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry: Dunedin poet, author and creative writing tutor Diane Brown (convenor); poet and kaiako Serie Barford; and Wellington poet and Grimshaw-Sargeson Fellow Gregory Kan.

Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction: award-winning writer, historian and archivist Jared Davidson (convenor); writer and curator Dr Anna-Marie White (Te Ātiawa); and veteran television producer Taualeo’o Stephen Stehlin MNZM.

General Non-Fiction Award: writer and award-winning columnist Anna Rawhiti-Connell (convenor); prize-winning author, academic and researcher Alison Jones; and historian Professor Te Maire Tau (Ūpoko of Ngāi Tūāhuriri, a hapu of Ngāi Tahu).

The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are supported by Ockham Residential, Creative New Zealand, Jann Medlicott and the Acorn Foundation, Mary and Peter Biggs CNZM, Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand, the Mātātuhi Foundation, and the Auckland Writers Festival, which hosts the awards ceremony as a marquee event in its annual programme.