New Zealand writing thrives in Covid-19 lockdown

29 September 2020

Open Division Winner Angela Pope and Secondary Schools Winner Amelia Isac.

New Zealand’s richest short story competition has thrived despite challenging circumstances for writers.

Angela Pope was one of hundreds of New Zealand writers who used the Covid-19 lockdown in April to get creative and enter this year’s Sargeson Prize short story competition, sponsored by the University of Waikato. She has received $5000 for her winning story ‘Lies’.

The competition, in its second year, received more than 800 entries from around the country in the Open Division and Secondary Schools Division. Winning the Secondary School Division is Amelia Isac from Samuel Marsden Collegiate School in Wellington for her story ‘Nic’. In addition to the $500 prize money, she receives a summer writing residency at the University of Waikato, where a mentor from the Writing Studies programme will offer feedback on her writing.

Judge Owen Marshall, regarded by many as Frank Sargeson’s successor, said he was impressed with the command of the Kiwi vernacular shown by most writers, and not only in the dialogue. He had no hesitation awarding ‘Lies’ first place in the Open Division.

‘Lies’ is about the crafting of stories – Tracey, who walks with a cane, makes up elaborate tales to tell strangers who feel entitled to ask about her accident. The stories are entertaining, but also a way of keeping the painful truth at bay.

Marshall’s observations are that New Zealand writers are not afraid to tell our stories in our own way, without being self-conscious.

“I was particularly impressed with the strong ‘voice’ achieved in the best stories, which is so valuable in the delineation of character.

“In ‘Lies’, the voice is strong, individual and persuasive and brings Tracey, the narrator, wonderfully to life – a young woman injured both physically and emotionally, but presenting a defiant face to the world. Her language is dismissive, colloquial, funny and movingly sensitive all at once.

“Above all the story has emotional power – it makes us care.”

Award-winning writer, University of Waikato lecturer and Sargeson Prize founder Catherine Chidgey says she is deeply proud that the University is encouraging adult and young writers to hone their literary skills for this competition.

“A perfectly crafted short story can reach out far beyond the writer’s fingertips to connect with a reader anywhere on the planet. Short stories – those feasts consumed in one sitting – enhance and enlarge our human experience, allowing us to imagine lives utterly different from our own. That’s one of the reasons they matter now more than ever.”

On how it feels to have won, the winner of the Open Division, Angela Pope, says, "I'm thrilled and delighted, but also very honoured."

The winner of the Secondary Schools Division, Amelia Isac, says, "This is a really meaningful award to me, and I am honoured to receive it. I love art and language but I haven’t thought of myself as a writer before. This gives me the confidence to continue writing about my experiences and the world around me.”

The full list of Sargeson Prize winners is below.

Open Division:

  • First: Angela Pope for ‘Lies’. Angela is from Dunedin.
  • Second: Sally Franiecevich for ‘The Consolidation Phase’. Sally is from Auckland.
  • Third: David Coventry for ‘Apologies, Please’. David is from Wellington.
  • Highly commended: Tobias Buck for ‘Hecuba’, Majella Cullinane for ‘Falling Softly’, Susanna Elliffe for ‘White noise machines’, Edith Poor for ‘Thursday’, Chris Yee for ‘Christchurch in winter’.

Secondary Schools Division:

  • First: Amelia Isac from Samuel Marsden Collegiate School for ‘Nic’.
  • Second: Kezia Rogers from Feilding High School for ‘Twelve for a Wicked Curse’.
  • Third: Darcy Monteath from Logan Park High School for ‘3 levels of mandatory obedience & sapien rebellion’.
  • Highly commended: Leila Barber from Samuel Marsden Collegiate School for ‘Copse/Corpse’, Cadence Chung from Wellington High School for ‘The Locket’, Anna Doyle from Marlborough Girls’ College for ‘A Blind Love Story’.

About the Sargeson Prize

Launched last year, the Sargeson Prize is New Zealand's richest short story competition, sponsored by the University of Waikato. Named after celebrated New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson, the Prize was developed by writer Catherine Chidgey, who also lectures in Writing Studies at the University.

In the Open Division, first, second and third place winners take away prizes of $5000, $1000 and $500 respectively. The winning story will also be published in Landfall. The second and third placing stories will be published in Mayhem.

Secondary Schools Division winners receive $500, $200 and $100 respectively, with first place receiving a week-long summer writing residency at the University of Waikato. This includes accommodation and meals at one of the University halls of residence, a writing mentor who will offer feedback on their work, and a writing space in the School of Arts.

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