Whiti Hereaka wins New Zealand’s Ockham fiction prize for novel subverting Māori myth

A novel subverting a Māori myth has taken home New Zealand’s most prestigious writing prize at this year’s Ockham New Zealand book awards.

Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka, which draws on the Māori legend of Hatupatu and the Bird-Woman but tells it from the perspective of the tale’s traditional monster Kurangaituku, has won the $60,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn prize for fiction.

Rob Kidd, convener of judges for the fiction category said the “epic poem of a novel” was “intense, clever and sexy as hell. It’s also an important novel. A game changer.”

Hereaka beat three other short-listed novels to the prize: A Good Winter by Gigi Fenster, Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly and Entanglement by Bryan Walpert.

Taking home the fiction award is “a big deal,” said Paula Morris, past winner and now spokesperson for the New Zealand Book Awards Trust which governs the Ockham awards.

Hereaka is the seventh Māori writer to win the prize in its almost 50-year history. The pool of previous recipients includes Patricia Grace, the late Keri Hulme, Alan Duff and Morris. With three more Māori writers on the longlist this year Morris is hopeful Māori award-winners will “be more frequent now”.

Morris said the awards included a range of large and small publishers and “even one self-published book, which was a finalist”. There was also diversity in authors and genres, she said.

“You’ve got literary memoirs facing off against a book about climate change and a major work of 19th century history in just one category alone.”

Vincent O’Malley’s Voices from the New Zealand War took out the top prize for nonfiction. Morris described the book as a “major work of scholarship” that brings together Māori and Pākehā (New Zealand European) voices.

She said there were “loads of surprises” at Wednesday’s awards ceremony.

“I don’t think they were delivering the most expected results by any means, which is a good thing.”

“They were idiosyncratic and thoughtful. That is what book awards should be.”

The other winners:

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