Fiona (Fiction), James Belich (Non Fiction) and Peter Bland (Poetry) were each awarded the 2011 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement at Premier House on 22 August.
Fiona’s speech on the night:
I’d like to congratulate my fellow award winners this evening, how pleased I am for you and for all of us. A special greeting to the Honorable Minister, Christopher Finlayson, or Chris as he’s widely known in the arts world. Minister you’re a good friend to writers.
An understanding of writers’ lives, and of their art form, is a rare and special quality in political circles. It’s been said that if politicians lived on praise and thanks, they’d be forced into some other line of business. But, having worked with Chris [Hon. Christopher Finlayson, Minister for the Arts] in the past, I know writers really do owe him a debt of gratitude for seeing things their way. So thank you, Chris.
It’s a long time since I started sending my fictions into the world. In fact, it’s close to fifty years since I proudly announced that I was a writer, an announcement that I have to say was met by a rather deafening silence, amongst the lines of nappies arrayed in deathly white splendour beyond the neighbours’ fence lines, a tapestry to which I’d soon be adding lines of my own. Alice Munro called one of her short story collections ‘Who Does She Think She Is?’ and the central character was a writer. I know what that was about. A part of me was oblivious, I was doing two things that I loved, being a writer and raising kids. Both gave me great joy. But there were days when I wondered what I was doing, especially on winter days. Our house in suburban Rotorua shivered in front of a row of dense giant macrocarpa trees. They kept the sunlight out. My neighbours would nip down to their letterboxes, stopping to chat to each other for a moment before hurrying out of the cold, without a sideways glance. My mission as I headed to the letter box was rather different, and I think they sensed that. I was going to see whether I had acceptance or rejection letters.
Throughout the 1960s the acceptance letters began to out number the rejections. I’d liked to have shared the pleasure this gave me, but by then I knew better. I understood that I still had a long way to explaining who I thought I was.
If I felt a certain aloneness at that time, there were presences beyond to keep me going. There were women like me, who were actually writing and publishing books. New Zealand women novelists. Janet Frame, of course, who I read, humbled and admiring, from afar. And three remarkable women, who may never know how much they meant to me then, unless I tell them now. I pay tribute to Marilyn Duckworth, Joy Cowley and Jean Watson, author of New Zealand’s greatest roadie novel ‘Stand in the Rain.’ If any of you are listening now, may I say that I was inspired by the fact that you were young mothers like me and I’m grateful to you for writing the books you wrote then, because you helped me make sense of the choices I’d made.
And thinking of New Zealand’s women writers, I’d like us to reflect for a moment on the life of Dame Christine Cole Catley, a remarkable woman and mentor to so many writers. Chris, you will be missed.
Life has changed for writers. There have been a number of significant turning points along the way. One of the great changes has been the introduction of the Authors’ Fund, now properly known as the Public Lending Right, which compensates writers for the free use of their books in libraries. I acknowledge Chris’s [Finlayson’s] role in supporting the battle for this just reimbursement.
In the 1980s, the Women’s book festivals were a significant grass roots movement in large and small communities, taking women’s books to every part of New Zealand. Through various movements and changes such the Book Council’s Words on Wheels tours, the festivals, the writing schools, and the book club movement, the perception has grown that being a writer is a ‘real job’.
I’ve been part of those movements and I offer thanks to all who have promoted and supported writers like me through the years. I now have a fair idea of who I am, the writer I longed to be, but I wouldn’t have got there without all of you.
There are, of course, many to thank. Forgive me if I miss anyone, my heart’s in the right place, though the head sometimes gets distracted by excitement. I’d like to thank the government of the day, and for my peers who nominated and chose me, for honouring me with the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement. The award will ease the way into the state of being what can no longer be denied, that of an older writer; it encourages me, too, to consider projects I might otherwise have put aside. Thank you to Creative New Zealand for their far-sighted and enthusiastic administration of the award. Thanks to my publishers at Random House for their continuing faith in me, and in particular, my editor Harriet Allan, who’s provided encouragement and belief for many years. Thank you to my many friends, especially those who make me laugh when I take myself too seriously – you know who you are. And lastly, but essentially, thank you to my family who love me, it seems unconditionally, although I know I’m a handful at times. Joanna and Vincent and Amelia, thank you for being here not just tonight but every night, and Ian who has shared the journey –as they say, but how better to put it – from the beginning. I cannot imagine how I would have made it through without any of you.