Friday, November 23, 2007



Our heartiest congratulations – laced with just a touch of envy – go to Damien Wilkins, who was named the winner of the inaugural New Zealand Post Mansfield Prize at a ceremony in Wellington earlier this week. New Zealand Post has significantly increased the size of the cash prize from previous sponsors’ contributions: the new $100,000 dollar prize consists of return airfares for two to London and the prestigious Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship, making it the most valuable New Zealand international writer’s residency programme.

In accepting the Award, Damien described Mansfield as ‘a kind of patron saint of New Zealand Post’, given that during about eight months in Menton in 1920, she wrote 110,000 words of letters — ‘more than her Collected Stories, and the equivalent of about a 350-page novel.’

The Katherine Mansfield Fellowship has supported many authors over the last 37 years, including Janet Frame, Witi Ihimaera, Vincent O’Sullivan, Dame Fiona Kidman and recent Man Booker prize shortlister, Lloyd Jones. It enables a New Zealand author to work at the Villa Isola Bella, where Mansfield lived and wrote. As Nigel Cox put it (in an essay from his newly released non-fiction collection Phone Home Berlin, quoted by NZ Post Chief Executive John Allen at the award ceremony), ‘the Fellow tries to ignore the ghosts (did Janet Frame sit facing this window or that one?) and get on with justifying the grant.’
When Cox went to Menton in 1991 the grant was ‘$36,000 to cover travel, accommodation and living’.Today the annual mean income of a New Zealand author as a result of writing is still less than $15,500 a year, according to a recent NZSA survey, so the grant must have seemed a princely sum even then. Damien gave an idea of what it might mean to him in this caveat to his admiration of Mansfield ‘the great artist’:

I've always felt more warmly towards the person who gave Mansfield's life a human scale — I'm talking about her companion, her friend, her slave, Ida Baker. When Mansfield was sick — and even when she wasn't — she'd order Ida off to the local stores to buy provisions. And when they were living just across the Italian border from Menton, Ida, without a word of the local language and quite a timid person, would be forced to do battle, to do the shopping, which she'd often get wrong. She was known in the village as 'the one who never counts her change'. And when I read that I thought, 'that'll be me! I won't be Katherine Mansfield. I'll be Ida Baker. The one who never counts his change.'

While Damien is busy ‘justifying the grant’ next year, novelist Kate Duignan ( will teach one of the IIML’s two 2008 MA (Page) workshops in his place.

Bill Manhire will be back from classroom leave to teach the other workshop. We’ll leave it until next year to wish Damien bon voyage.

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