Wellington writer Ashleigh Young wins prestigious Yale University prize
When Yale University contacted Wellington essayist Ashleigh Young to tell her she'd won a prize worth thousands of dollars, she thought the email was spam.
The "dubious looking email" came from a Michael Kelleher, who stated it was important he speak with the writer, right away. Young replied, on advice from her boss, then received a phone call that left her weak-kneed and in tears.
The email was not spam – Young is the first New Zealander to win the university's Windham-Campbell Prize, worth US$165,000 (NZ$230,000), for her collection of personal essays, Can You Tolerate This? The book was published by Victoria University Press last year.
"I'm still completely reeling. It came completely out of the blue," Young said.
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The way the awards are structured means the writers have no idea they're nominated, until they're told about their win.
Young's book of 21 essays traverses topics from Hamilton's nineties music scene to a stone-collecting French postman; and from family histories to Bikram yoga.
It also touches on Young's early life in Te Kuiti.
"A lot of the essays are about really small experiences. In an essay you can validate those experiences somehow and say 'they are meaningful to me'.
"In a funny way too I'm quite proud of my home town, Te Kuiti. It's a surreal thought that such a tiny wee place might get recognition."
The achievement put Young in the same sphere as one of her "absolute heroes", Australian writer Helen Garner, who won the prize last year.
"I can't really accept it quite yet. It still hasn't really sunk in."
The writer was not sure how she would spend her prize money, but first on the list was a proper table and chair for her living room, so she could sit by the window and write.
She also had half-formed plans about ways she might use the money to give back to the community.
"It's completely abstract to me at the moment – about what that [money] means. I don't really want to change my life in any radical way. I love my job, and my bicycle."
Seven other authors spanning fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama were also successful in securing the grant this year. They were set up in 2013 with a gift from the late Donald Windham in memory of his partner of 40 years, Sandy M Campbell.
Young will collect her prize money in September when she goes to the Windham-Campbell festival at Yale. Can You Tolerate This? has also been long-listed for the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.