Dr Jann Medlicott, radiologist by profession, literary philanthropist by spirit, died last Friday, August 12. She had sponsored the Acorn Prize for Fiction since 2016. Past winners, and others who knew her, share their tribute to a remarkable person.
Catherine Chidgey, winner of the 2017 prize: In 2017 I appeared at the Tauranga Arts Festival alongside Stephen Daisley – the inaugural winner of the mighty Acorn. After our session the organiser sidled up and whispered that someone present in the audience would like to have her photo taken with the two of us – and she introduced us to “retired radiologist and passionate reader” Jann Medlicott. Something weird was going on – something remaining unspoken, darting about just beyond our peripheral vision, flickering in the Spiegeltent’s dimly lit mirrors. Afterwards Stephen and I were pretty sure we’d figured it out – Jann had to be our anonymous benefactor.
What a marvellous thing she has done for New Zealand writers in establishing the Acorn. Jann was one of a kind, and leaves behind an invaluable legacy. I will miss her.
Fiona Kidman, winner of the 2019 prize: Jann Medlicott changed my life, although I couldn’t have told you who my mysterious benefactor was at the time. When Jann decided to share her wealth with writers she kept her identity secret for along while. She was a modest woman, or that’s how I found her. She loved books and reading and at some point it had occurred to her that most of us had limited means and she wanted to reward us for her reading pleasure. Without fanfare, without making a fuss, without adding her name to the prize. After a while, I think it dawned on her how much we wanted to be able to tell her in person what her gift had meant. Jann emerged from her self-imposed anonymity and met us all. She was a warm, articulate woman who wore vividly coloured clothes and loved to talk.
A year or so ago I was one of a group of former winners of the Jann Medlicott Acorn Fiction Book Awards who were invited to have lunch with her in Tauranga. She knew she was on borrowed time but she was lively and gave a great speech. It had given her joy to share time with us, she said. Well, Jann gave us joy and more and I’m forever grateful. Farewell to a remarkable generous woman.
Becky Manawatu, winner of the 2020 prize: When Jann Medlicott invited a group of authors, readers, literary enthusiasts and friends to Tauranga for a special lunch it was to be a further expression of her dazzling generosity. Not only were flutes of champagne – or whichever drink we wanted – thrust into our hands when we walked into the Tauranga Club, but Jann’s charm and spirit filled the room. She had on these incredible pink Doc Martin boots, and a jacket with pink flowers and sequins. She was laughing and hugging each of us ferociously. I remember I chose something glittery too, as well as a leather miniskirt. Jann and I remarked to each other that we looked great. She wanted us each to speak, and afterwards she stood and shared a generous and moving story about who she was, and of course this included her love of stories.
The morning before the lunch I was sitting with my coffee fretting over a gift for Jann. It was too late to be trying to work out what to bring her. But how could I arrive without something? All I had was some honey from the West Coast. It wasn’t enough. I became angry with myself, and finally I remembered the reason Jann had invited each of us to Tauranga.
The day was April 18, which is a day my Mum lights a candle each year, and usually texts me to say she has, reminding me to light one also. So I sat with my coffee and wrote a long letter to Jann, telling her a story, and I gave it to her with the honey at the lunch. She emailed me about a week after, thanking me for it. Ka nui te mihi ki a koe, Jann. Rest in aroha, we treasure you.
Whiti Hereaka, winner of the 2022 prize: Jann was a generous supporter of writers and literature in Aotearoa, but she was also a generous reader of our work. I suppose I was still in a daze after the awards when we chatted. Luckily, Jann saved us from the doldrums of small talk to discuss my book. There are people who read and people who READ and Jann struck me as the latter. Her comments were the kind that writers love: insightful and meaty. She went beyond the polite “I enjoyed your book” and we could talk about the ideas of it, about reclaiming of voice and space, of the structure and how it was both new and old, of the tragedy of a bird who cannot sing their own song.
Last evening, I was at Devonport Library in conversation with Danny Watson. It was one of the many events that I have been invited to in the wake of winning at the Ockhams. We talked about pūrākau and the power of story to connect us — even when it seems that we are too far apart. I believe that Jann recognised how precious that is. Her support of our writers and our stories is something to be celebrated. Ngā mihi, Jann. I am honoured and grateful to have met you.
Rosetta Allan, of the Crystal Arts Trust: I had spoken with Jann just two weeks ago, and she mentioned that there had been a complication in treatment. I assumed it was something that would be ironed out and wished her wellness.
Kindred spirits, she called us, and we were. We clicked immediately when I finally met Jann in person at the 2022 book awards. She was a woman of wit, intelligence, and strength. She promptly sat me next to her in the front row for the award ceremony, and I was unceremoniously ushered to the next row back, not being important enough to be allowed that precious seat next to my new friend. We laughed, though I was embarrassed, and she was a bit miffed.
Afterwards, the Q Bar bulged with the celebrations and commiserations of the book writing industry. Again Jann, her best friend Chris, and I found ourselves happily on the outskirts where we could talk about all things literary and the need for private philanthropy for the arts as camera crews by-passed us for the beautiful crowd in the middle. They really don’t know who they are walking past, I thought. But it didn’t faze Jann one bit.
Paula Morris, Academy of New Zealand Literature: It’s no surprise that Jann wanted no fuss and no memorials after her death. She was a woman without self-importance. For the past few years, I’ve sat with her at the Ockham NZ Book Awards: she bristled with excited anticipation. When the writers up on stage read from their books, I felt her delight and enthusiasm. Sometimes she would whisper guesses and opinions about various category winners. She loved books and loved being part of these celebrations.
Jann was a woman of action, and a woman of strong opinions. After this year’s ceremony, and at lunch with Jann, her friend Chris and Nicola Legat the next day, we dished about egregious omissions from the fiction longlist (Jann loved Crazy Love by Rosetta Allan). I didn’t think that lunch would be our last meeting. She was generous, warm and whip-smart. I’ll miss her hugs and her mischief. We need more women like Jann.
Nicola Legat, chair of the New Zealand Book Awards Trust Te Ohu Tiaki i Te Rau Hiringa: In May, the day after this year’s Ockham New Zealand book awards, Paula Morris and I took Jann Medlicott to lunch at Ahi. Jann was up, as she has loyally been ever since she became the sponsor of the awards’ fiction prize, from the Bay of Plenty for the awards event and then a couple of days in Auckland. She was so well and vibrant and so enjoyed our long, gossipy lunch.
When we left the restaurant she said something like, “If I never get to come to this event again I will still be happy that the award has turned out exactly as I hoped it would.”
It was a premonition that her cancer would return and that this time she would not beat it. And it was a reflection on the great fixture in our annual literature calendar that the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction has become. This year was almost the apogee of that: the four finalists reading their hearts out, then the winner, Whiti Hereaka, at the microphone in her glorious gown of feathers, and in the coming days everywhere in the media.
In 2015, when Jann first approached the New Zealand Book Awards Trust, initially following an approach on her behalf by the Acorn Foundation to Creative New Zealand literature adviser Jill Rawnsley, the awards event was in trouble. It had just lost the sponsor, NZ Post, and with only the support of Creative New Zealand to count on the future seemed very grim. Jann’s incredible offer of the fiction prize – which in the first year was $50,000 (it has been indexed to the CPI at her wish since) – was a major boost.
Jann was a terrific and discerning reader, she always read all of the longlist, and she pretty much always picked the winner. She cared immensely about these writers and her impact on the six winners in the years since Stephen Daisley was the inaugural recipient has been enormous. Of course, receiving that much money is incredible, but it’s more than that – it’s the book-sales spike that comes, the profile, the confidence.
Jann’s death does not mean the end of this. Incredibly, she arranged, via the Acorn Foundation, that the prize is to be given in perpetuity. In perpetuity! There will be many more overwhelmed novelists and short story writers standing in front of the microphone at the Ockhams, clutching their Acorns and lost for words. Each year that happens we will remember her and her extraordinary and visionary act of generosity. Bless you, Jann.