Brannavan Gnanalingam: woke.

ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias comments on the Ockham New Zealand book awards shortlist

New Zealand literature has long tried to be woke, made various woke noises, and had very woke intentions but really it’s operated as a safe enclave for good old whitey to enjoy the awards, the grants, the cash prizes – until now. This morning’s announcement of the 2021 Ockham New Zealand national book awards shortlist is a bit of a wokester festival.

Sixteen authors have made the shortlist. Seven are writers of colour. Seven are women. None of the writers in the poetry category are white. Three of the four books nominated for the non-fiction award are concerned with Māori. As well, there’s a novel so woke that it actually features a trigger warning! Gee someone ought to do that for any future editions of Nabokov’s Lolita. That’d really make a difference, wouldn’t it. One of the Ockham shortlisted books is by Alison Jones, a professor who teaches academic writing to mainly Māori and Pacific education students at Te Puna Wānanga; her memoir This Pākehā Life explores her immersion into the Māori world. It’s also very good. I excerpted a passage from it in ReadingRoom last year and it was wildly popular with readers.

That’s the thing about woke: it’s not a synonym for lame. All of the 12 shortlisted books are there on their merits. These are new voices, different approaches, not necessarily confined to English, more representative of a changing population, and signal exciting directions in New Zealand literature. New Zealand Book Awards Trust spokesperson Paula Morris said, “This year’s finalists reveal a shift in New Zealand writing and publishing, and a deeper engagement with multicultural New Zealand. The poetry list alone includes work by Māori, Pasifika, Asian and Egyptian-born writers. There’s so much to celebrate here, and so much to discover.”


Actually it’s unlikely many people will bother discovering the shortlisted books. There is nothing on this year’s shortlist which has the potential to get anywhere near the commercial success of Becky Manawatu’s novel Auē, which won the fiction award in 2020, and had already established itself on the best-seller list before it picked up the prize. The four novels shortlisted for the 2021 awards have barely made a dent on the Neilsen best-seller chart. No surprises there; the three works published by Victoria University Press are literary fiction, including the exciting and rare addition in the book awards of a collection of short stories (Bug Week by Whanganui writer Airini Beautrais). The fourth book, Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam, is the one with the outlandish trigger warning: “This book is about sexual violence and features frequent discussions of sexual violence, suicide, violence, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. Please take care. At the back of the book, we have listed a number of organisations who provide support.” Good grief! But this guy could win the prize: he’s really good at telling a story.

Victoria University Press accounts for six of the 16 books on the Ockham shortlist. The wonder is that they don’t account for more. No room for Bill Manhire’s elegiac Wow in the poetry category. Manhire is so esteemed and so iconic that he has a building named after him, and perhaps the judges couldn’t see the poet for the building; it kind of gets in the way. No room, either, for Brian Easton’s mammoth history, Not in Narrow Seas: The Economic History of Aotearoa New Zealand. Instead, there’s room for the rather more modest history, Te Hāhi Mihinare |The Māori Anglican Church by Hirini Kaa. Hm.

Time to judge the judges for their wokeness. Poetry category convenor of judges Dr Briar Wood: “The four shortlisted collections are striking, all exhibiting an acute global consciousness in difficult times.” Points out of 10 for wokeness:  9 (“acute global consciousness”).

Fiction category convenor of judges Kiran Dass: “Craft, nuance, urgent storytelling, rage against injustice, and new perspectives are at the forefront of these four impressive books.”  Points out of 10 for wokeness: 7 (“rage against injustice”).

General Non-Fiction category convenor of judges Sarah Shieff: “These four books, each in its own way an extraordinary achievement in the category’s defining parameters of story-telling, research and memory work, will enrich the conversations we have about ourselves and this place for years to come.” Points out of 10 for wokeness: 10 (“enrich the conversations we have about ourselves”, also it was really long-winded, a hallmark of every wokester ever).

Illustrated non-fiction category convener Dale Cousens: “The four finalists are standout examples of a dazzlingly broad range of passions, from the arts and sciences to food, adventure and the outdoors, distilled into beautiful and engaging works.”  Points out of 10 for wokeness: zero. It’s also the only category without a single woke thing about it.

The shortlist is as follows. One asterix marks the book I think will win, two asterixes marks the book I hope will win, and you should be able to make out what three asterixes mean.


Bug Week & Other Stories by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press)

Nothing to See by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press)**

Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press)

Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson)*


Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)

Magnolia 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles (Seraph Press) *

National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books)

The Savage Coloniser Book by Tusiata Avia (Victoria University Press)**


An Exquisite Legacy: The Life and Work of New Zealand Naturalist G.V. Hudson by George Gibbs (Potton & Burton)

Hiakai: Modern Māori Cuisine by Monique Fiso (Godwit, Penguin Random House)

Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists by Leonard Bell (Auckland University Press)

Nature — Stilled by Jane Ussher (Te Papa Press)***


Specimen: Personal Essays by Madison Hamill (Victoria University Press)**

Te Hāhi Mihinare |The Māori Anglican Church by Hirini Kaa (Bridget Williams Books)

The Dark is Light Enough: Ralph Hotere A Biographical Portrait by Vincent O’Sullivan (Penguin, Penguin Random House)

This Pākehā Life: An Unsettled Memoir by Alison Jones (Bridget Williams Books)*

The awards will be held on May 12 unless lockdown.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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