And the winner is… Auē, by Becky Manawatu

The debut novel by a previously unknown author from Westport has sensationally won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand book award – and $55,000 – for best novel (as well as $2500 for the best first novel award). Emma Espiner responds to Auē by Becky Manawatu.

I read Auē at Pohara Beach last summer. It’s my favourite place in the whole world. The sand is a homely wet beige, compared with the gold of the much flashier Tata Beach a few bays along. It's bordered by rocks and wind-bowed trees, a TOP 10 Holiday Park and a road that’s crumbling off the side of a cliff. The jet skis and speed boats are mercifully few, the tōrea plentiful and chatty at low tide. It’s even better in the winter, cold and still and mysterious, the mountain ranges purple-blue and the locals in hand knits.

My mum’s family is from Takaka, and this is the place I have missed the most during lockdown. My copy of Becky Manawatu’s debut novel has been through several sets of hands since the summer ended but it still sheds grains of Pohara sand if you shake it hard enough.

Auē is a novel that is gentle in the places where you expect brutality, and truly horrible in the places you hope to find relief. There’s a bedroom in a gang house where a little girl grows up and is loved by her parents and seems to have a good life, for a while. There’s a boat that starts out as a refuge and then becomes a site for despair and self-harm. Lots of native birds. A mean Nanny. Kids too young for R-rated movies, obsessed with Django Unchained.

A critic at Radio New Zealand criticised some of these things as tropes. Something about birds and Māori playing guitars on beaches and violence among our people landed badly. The best and most relevant review of Auē, in my view, is by Arihia Latham, writing for Landfall. She writes of working through this discomfort, with her twin roles as experienced writer and rongoā Māori practitioner making her uniquely capable of appreciating the nuance in the text. She talks of being propelled through the novel by the quality of the writing and the care taken by the author to do what’s right and true by her characters, and how she tries to uplift ngā iwi Māori even when she’s shining a light in dark places. She calls it integrity, and I agree. When I read Auē, sitting on the beach at the end of a hard year, the novel felt true.

RNZ’s critic was disappointed with elements of the novel, saying we’re past that Once Were Warriors shit. I guess I’d agree if we actually were, you know, past that shit. Like orphans, family violence is still with us. Always will be, unless we address the causes of the causes of that violence, no matter how hard we insist on positive role models only.

This same critic felt that the reo Māori used by Becky Manawatu was basic. “Kohanga reo-ish.” That criticism left me wondering, why bother? If we can’t experiment with our own reo, to which Becky is entitled as a Māori woman, then what’s the point? We can’t all be Tīmoti Karetu from birth. Even Tā Tīmoti had to grow into himself (funny aside - he grew far too much into himself, according to my father’s mother Kura Wehipeihana, who had a semi-friendly rivalry with the master linguist, over whose reo was more pure). I bristled when the critic mused about whether Becky Manawatu held to tired cultural stereotypes because she was from the South Island.

I inherited my sense of loyalty from my South Island, Takaka side, through Mum. She loved the book for its depiction of the cruelty and beauty of being human. She offered to write a letter to RNZ pointing out how their critic’s review was mean-spirited and off the mark. “I bet they’re getting lots of feedback in support of Becky, Em.”

I feel loyal to Becky because she’s a Māori writer and she wrote a great book and she had some bad shit happen to her family. A lot of bad shit has happened to our family, too. None of that is mine to tell, but throughout everything there has been a desperate love for one another that has, so far, transcended every sin. The way that the survivors of Auē draw together in the end, with huge holes where the lost ones should be, is exactly how it is in families like ours. Congratulations to Becky and her whānau for winning the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. It's one hell of an achievement.

Auē by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press, $35) is available in all good bookstores; handily, ReadingRoom has a complete list of all good bookstores throughout New Zealand.


Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, and $55,000: Becky Manawatu for Auē (Makaro Press)

The Hubert Church Prize for best first book of fiction, and $2,500: Becky Manawatu for Auē (Makaro Press)

General Non-Fiction Award, and $10,000: Shayne Carter for Dead People I Have Known (Victoria University Press)

The E.H. McCormick Prize for a best first work of General Non-Fiction, and $2,500: Shayne Carter for Dead People I Have Known (Victoria University Press)

Illustrated Non-Fiction Award, and $10,000: Stephanie Gibson, Matariki WIlliams (Tūhoe, Te Atiawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Hauiti) and Puawai Cairns (Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāiterangi) for Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance (Te Papa)

The Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry, and $10,000: Helen Rickerby for How to Live (Auckland University Press)

The Jessie Mackay Prize for best first book of Poetry, and $2,500: Jane Arthur for Craven (Victoria University Press)

The Judith Binney Prize for best first work of Illustrated Non-Fiction, and $2,500: Tim Denee and Chris McDowall for We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa (Massey University Press)

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: Thank you.

With thanks to our partners