Friday, June 3, 2011

The Book Awards and 'the power of many stories'

My Photo
With the shortlist for the NZ Post Book Awards still being wrung out and pegged on the line by writers and readers around the country, Renee Liang popped into my mind. 

Why? Well there's a groundswell of dissatisfaction about the list of only three books for both the fiction and poetry awards. Five, why can't there be five? That way more books would get their time in the sun; and for the same reason, many of us would also like to see a shortlist for the Best First Book Awards rather than one outright winner for each.

I have already said that the judges' list is the judges' list and despite our own wish-lists, we should just get on and celebrate the authors they have selected. I do believe that, but how much more of a celebration we could have if there was a more substantial, nay, a more generous list. The celebration isn't just for literature, it is a celebration - and vital affirmation - of us and the way we think and live.

Renee has explored this idea online (I don't know her view of the Book Awards per se). In The Big Idea arts website, Renee writes about this year's Auckland Writers Festival and why people converged in record numbers -

"I feel that engagement is what people come for – they want to feel invested in the discussion, in the stories being told, in the authors themselves."

She talks too about 'the power of many stories' converging and how they're essential to a balanced view of the world - she is quoting Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie here who warns against 'the danger of a single story' in this marvellous TED talk.

It seems to me, being too economical in our only national book awards shortlist is choosing to ignore this philosophy and has its own dangers. Not least, it limits us.

Renee is one of those fascinating writers - someone with a real job. She's a paediatrician as well as a poet, playwright, and short story writer who organises community arts events, blogs on Chinglish and on The Big Idea arts website, is a Tuesday Poet and now a judge of the inaugural NZ Society of Authors Asian Short Story Competition. Recognised as a Sir Peter Blake Emerging Leader last year she said this:

'My shared passion for medicine and arts has often converged in my projects, and that’s because I believe they are the same thing. I’m interested in the stories people have to tell, the history behind their stories, and the environment they come from.' 

[If you have a minute, read an astonishing poem that brings together her two passions.]

Renee ponders the danger of one story in the context of judging the Asian Short Story competition. What is an 'Asian story'? she asks, and decides there isn't and can't be just one. More in her article here.

Renee is also sister to the up and coming filmmaker Roseanne Liang  (My Wedding and Other Secrets) who has brought Chinese-NZ stories to the big screen. Renee says My Wedding is her story and it led to a backlash in a Chinese community that believes in its members keeping their heads down. She recognises the risks her sister's taken

Who must the storyteller ultimately answer to? Herself? The subjects of the story? The community the story comes from? The audience she aims to connect with? These things are not clearcut, and there's no right answer. My sister decided that remaining true to herself was what this film demanded, and part of my tears on watching the film came because I saw that struggle. The documentary worked because it was so raw and honest. The film, although fictional, maintains that quality.

More here. 
So I guess what many of us in the wider community would like to see with the NZ Post Book Awards is more risks taken. More 'investment in the discussion.' More stories up there for us all to embrace. 

4 comments: said...

The awards, each year, sure get us engaged, and I've enjoyed reading Beattie's blog, yours and Craig Cliff and will now go and read Renee's blog. Lovely that we all care so much and incredible that so many good books missed out, but it must also reflect the very healthy state of NZ literature. Yes, something must be done. But oddly enough the change to a smaller shortlist was the result of a survey and dissatisfaction, but the hue and cry cannot be ignored... definitely I reckon a short-list for best first book is needed.

Jennifer Compton said...

why not go for a six book short list?

Claire G said...

This is a really insightful post and an important conversation to have.

Can it be complete if the only participants are a small group of enthusiasts (such as ourselves)? How can we look at more stories if most media, as Guy Somerset has commented, won't allow 15 minutes of fame for even a few?

Perhaps this is a side issue and I am influenced by my concern, as an Aucklander, about the NZ Herald's tabloidisation. And as news reports are on "tomorrow's fish and chip paper", I guess they will be more short-lived than the literature we want to celebrate.

Piokiwi said...

Thanks Mary for your very generous words! I was lucky enough to attend the NZ Post Book Awards last year and was able to cheer loudly when Alison Wong won Best Fiction (represent!). Personal biases aside though, I think we have to recognise that the NZ Post Book Awards is limited in what it can do to promote NZ writers. There are winners, and these lucky people should be celebrated, and there are those who don't win - they are no less important, and so we have to find other ways of recognising their value. I think peer recognition and support is what writers all crave, and we're good at that in NZ (in our little communities) and should continue. We should also look to see how we can be of relevance to our audience, and to do this we need to answer the question for ourselves: why do we write? The answer will dictate the next move - whether it is to satisfy a personal promise, to inform, to stimulate debate, to record an important story, to give an otherwise silent community a voice. The energy of each personal quest can be poured into reaching "our people" - and the internet is now our most valuable tool. That's a sideways way of responding to you Claire - the NZ Herald, like many of our media outlets, struggles between classic journalistic values and the need to attract readers to remain viable,and within those organisations there are many who are doing their best. As writers and internet-fluent users we can look at alternatives. I'm taking a deliberately rosy view here!