NZ Arts Festival, Writers & Readers Week
March 15 | Reviewed by Gemma Freeman

FOR WHAT IS possibly the most valuable prize for emerging writers in the world, and definitely the largest literary prize in New Zealand, the Embassy Theatre was embarassingly empty on Saturday evening as we gathered to hear readings by the nominees for the biennial $65,000 Prize in Modern Letters. If you subtract family and friends of each of the six nominees, that only leaves a handful of people there with an unbiased interest in upcoming New Zealand literature. Having seen the theatre completely packed throughout the week, it concerned me that this exclusively New Zealand line-up was not as appealing as other events. The group’s relative inexperience certainly did not mean a lack of quality: these six have had nothing less than glowing reviews, and the Prize hardly has a history of awarding duds (past winners are Catherine Chidgey, Glenn Colquhoun and Carl Shuker).

Michele Amas read confidently from her collection After the Dance (her experience as an actor has put her in good stead for reading from the stage). The poems dealt with the trials of being a single mother, and were in pretty stark contrast to David Beach, whose wry sonnets were up next. Having not read his work before, I can’t be sure how much of the pleasure was gained from the incongruity of this gawky character reading poems narrated by God (“you non-omniscient beings wouldn’t understand” he stuttered out), but his reading certainly left me with a smile on my face.

Then to Louise Wareham Leonard, also a finalist in 2006. Bill had just read a superlative review of her Miss Me a Lot Of and so I was disappointed to hear she would instead read a piece of creative non-fiction about her leaving New York after 9/11. She didn’t seem entirely at ease with the relative new-ness of the piece, faltering on some words. Mary McCallum was more sure of herself as she read from her debut novel The Blue. Released last year, it is remarkably already in reprint. McCallum’s prose is spare and unsentimental and immensely appealing and after only a few minutes I could picture exactly the setting and characters.

Jo Randerson then read a short story called ‘Four Cousins’. Her writing is very distinctive: charming and a bit strange and without any pretensions. Hers is one of the works that I’m still thinking about; her stories can seem one thing at first but then reveal new layers days later. I was very much looking forward to hearing from Anna Sanderson. There is an unfortunate lack of essays in New Zealand literature, and Sanderson was nominated for a whole book of them, Brainpark. Bill had earlier described Randerson as being part of a “peculiar local sensibility” but the same could easily be said of Sanderson. Her writing is not flashy, tricksy or cunning, but economical, insightful and sophisticated, and I was happy to be reminded of other recent essays and short fiction by young Wellington writers in issues of Sport and Landfall.

And then, the announcement. The final call was made by a single judge, Brigid Hughes, former editor of The Paris Review and founding editor of New York literary journal A Public Space. While she appreciated the experimentation and “sense of play” in all books, Hughes said she was was enamoured with the authenticity and blend of high and low in the work of David Beach, whom she named the winner. Bill Manhire had said at the very start that each of the previous winners had been surprising at the time, but I don’t know if any had been quite the underdog that Beach was. The only man among the six finalists; when I asked people for their picks during the week and eavesdropped in the foyer on Saturday night, his was the only name I hadn’t heard put forward as a contender. And yet, it makes a lovely heading in the paper: a mail sorter for NZ Post going on to win a prestigious literary prize at NZ Post Writers and Readers Week. “They support the literary community in more ways than you’d think!” Bill had cracked at the start.

As well as awarding a very important prize, the event was a snapshot of where new New Zealand literature is now: that is to say, going in all possible directions, and confident about it.