This country's “book tribe” – as Dr Sam Elworthy, chair of the Book Awards Governance Council, called it – is indeed a small one. In the lobby of the Auckland War Memorial Museum last night for the New Zealand Post Book Awards I spoke with editor Stephen Stratford and we laughed that we were both there to support our friend Chris Bourke, convenor of the judging panel.
In the lift to the top floor I met someone I had been to school with (and hadn't seen since – funny how names and faces from more than four decades ago stick better than someone you met last week) and the first person I spoke to upstairs – potter and guidance counsellor Stuart Newby – remembered me from when I was at his school as a visiting author.
Stuart was up for an award for Playing with Fire; Auckland Studio Potters Society Turns 50 which he co-wrote with Peter Lange. Peter came over – we'd met at a dinner some years back and have a mutual friend in Chris Knox – and we chatted, and when I was seated I was beside Lawrence McDonald who was also up for an award with fellow writers Diane Pivac and Frank Stark for their excellent New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History.
Lawrence also knew Roger Shepherd of Flying Nun and he too had seen the thrilling LCD Soundsystem doco Shut Up and Play the Hits at the film festival the night before.
When I looked around the room I must have clocked at least a couple of dozen people I knew, even more that I knew of or recognised. Radio NZ's Katherine Ryan said “Hi” at the buffet table.
It's a small world in New Zealand books, and that's the good news. The room was supportive of nominees and winners (not like the more partisan music awards where I guess young people feel their career depends on winning a gong). Success or effort was genuinely applauded.
The long shadow of Margaret Mahy, of course, hung over proceedings, but not in a negative way. Her successes were honoured and her inspiration acknowledged. Hers was a life, career and contribution to be celebrated.
After the generous mihi by Matt Maihi – in which he spoke of a “wind of change”, a metaphor bedded in those first sailing ships landing and extended into how we should enjoy the change together – it was down to business.
Elegant MC Jennifer Ward-Lealand was flawless, the speakers were eloquent (an unfair comparison with the music awards where “Ahh, yeah . . . cheers” is considered adequate) and the few facts thrown in made your chest swell.
Elworthy noted 75 books would be taken to the Frankfurt Book Fair in October at which New Zealand is the official Guest of Honor, later we were told last year 10 books had been translated into German and this year the number was over 100, and at the recent Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 151,000 of the $5 book vouchers had been redeemed. The Kindle Generation hasn't won the ground just yet.
This year there was a Maori Language Award (not given every year) and it went to Chris Winitana (Ngati Tuwharetoa and Ngai Tuhoe) for Toku Reo, Toku Ohooho/My Language; My Inspiration whose speech opened with “Wow!” and went on to pay tribute to his family – and the 24 elders who form the core of a book which traces the development and crisis in te reo (but nods to who was on Ready to Roll at the time also).
Presenter Paora Tibble picked up the metaphor from Maihi's welcome and noted “the wind coming, it's te reo Maori”.
In accepting her People's Choice award for From Under the Overcoat, Sue Orr noted Margaret Mahy was the “choicest people's choice”; introducing the non-fiction award (Joan Druett for her exceptional account of Cook's Polynesian navigator in Tupaia) judge Mary Egan spoke of the “interesting, beautiful and erudite” books in the category; and it was noticeable the poetry finalists (the category won by the young writer Rhian Gallagher for Shift) all got extra special hugs from judge Paula Green.
Poets need hugs more than most probably. The hours are long and the financial rewards considerably smaller than a shift in a fast food outlet.
Even successful novelist Paula Morris, collecting her award for Rangatira, said “I'd like to thank everyone who loaned me money . . . but I'd be here for a long time”. That's the way of it for New Zealand writers, and yet they still do it. Crazy but wonderful.
Absent on the night was Chris Bourke (good excuse: “fatherhood imminent”, although when I texted him he said “no action yet”) . . . but present were some of the finest, most dedicated and intelligent writers this country has.
Best first book went to New Zealand by Design by Michael Smythe and John Adams' complex but utterly engaging Briefcase (poetry, prose, the language of the law in a remarkable post-modern conjunction) won best first book of poetry. He's a district court judge so although he didn't get one, he maybe needed a bigger hug than most. Hamish Clayton's Wulf (“a feat of bravura lyricism”) set in early 19th century New Zealand was acknowledged as best first book/fiction.
Even a cursory glance at these titles and their subjects affirms we are not only writing about ourselves, but for ourselves. Our eyes are focused on defining, redefining and refining our own view of who we are as a people, a nation with a rich history and interesting present.
The big winner managed to encompass both: the NZ Post Book of the Year went to the handsome New Zealand's Native Trees by John Dawson and Rob Lucas (also picking up best illustrated non-fiction).
Such a book – at $120 – might not find a place on too many home bookshelves, but as a defining text and beautifully illustrated with over 2000 photographs, it is a salient reminder of the rare land we inhabit and how that remarkable native forest came to be like it is, evolving over millennia. And – when Dawson spoke briefly of his theory involving the eating habits of the extinct moa -- how we are but temporary citizens of this place.
The NZ Post Book Awards are a celebration of ourselves and that “tribe” is growing in size and importance. They might not win bronze, silver or gold and thus command the front page of our newspapers or top the nightly news on television, but the writers are our people and of considerable importance. They are also bloody good company and there's about two degrees of separation between most.
Oh, and that guy from school I met in the lift was Alan Sorrell. I asked him what he was doing there. Seems he chairs the Arts Board of Creative New Zealand, so fair enough.
I really need to get better connected.