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Aotearoa’s richest short story prize awarded

13 October 2022

Sargeson Prize Short Story Competition Open Division winner Leeanne O'Brien's short story Crawl Space was a winner from the outset.

The art of the Kiwi short story is alive and well if entries to this year’s Sargeson Prize are anything to go by.

Judge Dame Fiona Kidman says she was overwhelmed by the number and quality of submissions which saw 960 entries in the Open Division and 165 entries in the Secondary Schools Division – the most entries ever.

“The overall standard of the stories I read was so high that I think the future of the short story in Aotearoa is very promising. It’s our literary heritage and sits side by side with our traditions of oral storytelling. The best of the best stories in the Secondary Schools Division convinces me that the craft will be kept alive by the next generation of writers.”

Leeanne O’Brien of Piha, who won the grand prize of $10,000 in the Open Division with her story ‘Crawl Space’, says she’s still waiting for someone to tap her on the shoulder and wake her up.

“I feel like a bit of a fraud because I’m not one of those people who writes every day or plots things out completely. I have submitted every year since the competition began but didn’t last year. I broke my back in a car accident which, ironically, gave me more time to write, so I pulled out an old story I’d had lying around and reupholstered/repolished/reworked it for this year.”

Her story, ‘Crawl Space’, had Dame Fiona hooked from the start.

University of Waikato Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing Catherine Chidgey with Open Division winner Leeanne O'Brien, Dame Fiona Kidman and Vice-Chancellor Professor Neil Quigley

“‘Crawl Space’ goes straight into an extraordinary yet believable dilemma, and never lets up with its pulsating prose,” says Fiona. “This beautifully crafted story of a woman leading a double life and  discovering that her father has one too sets up some profound challenges. It's a confronting read but so well controlled and written that it was a winner for me from the start.”

Similarly, the winning entry in the Secondary Schools Division – ‘Fourth Wall’, from last year’s winner Shima Jack of Logan Park High School – made an impact on the judge.

“’Fourth Wall’ is sophisticated in its storytelling. It sets up what might at first sight be perceived as a conventional teenage love triangle, but is told so skilfully and with such insight into its characters that it stood out.”

Secondary School's Division winner Shima Jack's story 'Fourth Wall' is sophisticated in its storytelling, according to judge Dame Fiona Kidman

Shima has been speaking poems since she was three, according to her mother, so it’s no surprise that she has been crowned winner for the second year in a row. The driven and passionate 18-year-old from Dunedin founded a young writers’ group in her hometown this year, and says she writes about things that she feels strongly emotionally about and that feel very personal to her.

“I read everything – sometimes what school tells me to read, classic and contemporary novels. I recently read a collection of short stories by a Korean author Bora Chung called Cursed Bunny which was really cool and fresh.”

As her prize, Shima receives $500 and a one-week summer writing residency at the University of Waikato, including accommodation, meals and mentoring. She says the residency she received last year was incredibly rewarding and is looking forward to the mentoring.

University of Waikato Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and accomplished author Catherine Chidgey says the annual Sargeson Prize is an incredible opportunity for writers from all around the country to get stuck in and practise their craft.

“One of the things I love about the Sargeson Prize is that it levels the playing field for new and established writers – and we had a fabulous mix of both this year,” says Catherine. “It’s so wonderful to see successful Schools entrants from 2021 featuring again, too. I’m thrilled with the record numbers of entries, their high quality and their sheer range, with many taking risks and pushing at the boundaries of convention. Long live the short story in Aotearoa!”

Judge Dame Fiona Kidman encourages interested writers to get busy and start drafting for next year’s competition, and for all Kiwis to engage in short stories, either creating or consuming.

“What short stories need is readers. It has been said before that if every person who aspired to write them was to go out and buy a collection of New Zealand short stories, the genre would be flourishing, rather than a cottage industry,” says Fiona.

Full list of winning entries:

Open Division Places

Winner: ‘Crawl Space’ by Leeanne O’Brien

Second: ‘The Warning’ by  Emily Perkins

Third: ‘Brendon Varney Opens the Door’ by Stephen Coates

Highly Commended:

  • ‘Sugar’ by Kate Duignan
  • ‘Transgression’ by Kirsty Gunn
  • ‘Stripes’ by Dr Himali McInnes
  • ‘The Jazz Packers’ by Robert Fisherman
  • ‘Baba Jaga: Redux’ by Liz Breslin
  • ‘The Last Night’ by Dara Flaws

Secondary Schools Division:

Winner: ‘Fourth Wall’ by Shima Jack, Logan Park High School

Second: ‘Breaking up, breaking down’ by Maggie Yang, Kristin School

Third: ‘A Half-Truth Is a Lie’ by Reema Arsilan, Hauraki Plains College

Highly Commended:

  • ‘Face in the Space’ by Ella Sage, Westland High School
  • ‘Her Garden’ by Beth Allwood, Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu
  • ‘Mr Sandman’ by Ana Faville, Palmerston North Girls’ High School
  • ‘Syll-a-bles’ by Ella Quarmby, Ōtūmoetai College
  • ‘Melody’ by Minna Zhu, Wakatipu School

(From left to right) Open Division highly commended Robert Fisherman; Secondary Schools Division winner Shima Jack, second place Maggie Yang and third place Reema Arsilan; Dame Fiona Kidman; Open Division winner Leeanne O'Brien; University of Waikato Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing Catherine Chidgey; University of Waikato Vice-Chancellor Professor Neil Quigley

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