In April, I took part in the Readers and Writers Alive! Literary Festival in Invercargill, and had a great time. Hamesh Wyatt, Rebecca Amundsen and the Dan Davin Literary Foundation really know how to look after visiting writers - in a way that makes them feel a part of the community they are visiting - and if you ever get the chance to attend the Festival, my advice is: take it!
But my association with the Dan Davin Foundation didn't end there. I also took on the job of judging the Open and Student short story competitions, and I returned to Invercargill on 1 September to present the prizes.
I didn't know it when I chose the winners, place-getters and honourable mentions, but the identity of the winners turned out to be stories in themselves, one sad and one happy.
As the student section winner, I chose "A Day at the Beach" by Pooja Pillay. What I didn't know was that Pooja was seriously ill by the time I made my choice. She learned of her victory the day before she died, a few days before the presentation ceremony, as reported in the Southland Times.
As the Open section winner, I chose "The Journey of the Magi" by Claire Buckingham. While the Student competition is confined to senior high school students from Southland schools, the Open competition is open to entrants from throughout New Zealand, and this appears to have been the first time that a Southlander has won the Open section. (Not that I knew this when judging - the entries were anonymous.)
There were a number of other very fine stories among the placegetters and Honourable Mentions, and as I said in my Judge's Reports, both the present and the future of Southland writing appear to be in good hands.
Given the circumstances, the presentation ceremony (at which Bill Manhire also delivered the annual Dan Davin Lecture) was a bittersweet affair. I presented the open competition awards first - there was a lot of applause at the news a local writer had won, but Claire is away on her travels and wasn't able to receive the prize in person - and the student competition awards second.
This meant that Pooja's award was the last announced, and having announced her as the winner, I then handed over to representatives from Pooja's school, Aparima College. One of Pooja's fellow students gave a moving eulogy that focused on the difference Pooja's presence had made to the school and to her fellow students, then her English teacher read Pooja's winning story before we settled back to listen to Bill's lecture.
Some of us were still chatting away over food and drinks the best part of an hour after the formal parts of the evening finished, and this discussion only reinforced my feeling that the main thing holding writers back in Southland is not any lack of ability, but isolation, both real and perceived. I know the Dan Davin Literary Foundation has some big plans to help ease that isolation, and I am looking forward to seeing those plans come to fruition.