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No Man's Land . . . AJ Fitzwater has won best novella at the Sir Julius Vogel Awards for their novel set in North Otago. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/HEATHER MILNE

North Otago farms do not just produce food and milk.

They also happen to produce good fodder for award-winning novellas.

Writer AJ Fitzwater, who uses they/them pronouns, recently won best novella at the Sir Julius Vogel Awards for their book No Man’s Land

Inspired by Dianne Bardsley’s book The Land Girls: In a Man’s World, Fitzwater’s novella intercepts women’s history with queerness.

During World War 2, the Women’s Land Service, commonly known as “land girls”, was a government initiative to bolster the rural workforce, filling the gaps left by farming men who went to war.

Women from rural areas and cities took over the duty of farming, expanding gender roles and their world views. The land girls marked a cultural shift during which women were exposed to different people and ideas, Fitzwater said.

“They felt empowered in whatever way the war gave them that opportunity and some of them became really tough goers.”

A lot of this history had been hidden or destroyed, and Dr Bardsley’s book helped to reiterate the land girls’ place in New Zealand history, Fitzwater said.

Fitzwater’s book was a queer fantasy about land girls who become shapeshifters while working on North Otago farms.

As part of their research, Fitzwater drew on anecdotes from their mother-in-law, who grew up on a farm near Palmerston and now lived in Herbert.

Just as Dr Bardsley did, Fitzwater endeavoured to reiterate history too, only that of queer history.

“They were there, they were absolutely there.

“Queer people have always been here.”

Even if it was the two “aunties” that lived together but only had one bedroom, they said.

Rather than presenting “bury the gays” narratives of tragedy and loneliness, coming-out stories, or queerness as the entirety of the story, Fitzwater presented a fantastical queer narrative within a very real historical context.

“I have been interested in telling queer stories in Aotearoa … because a lot of that history gets lost through certain elders dying, information not being recorded and being hidden.”

Through their writing, they wanted to contribute to the overall cultural conversation.

They are currently undergoing a residency at the Christchurch Arts Centre, writing queer stories within a precolonial context, and they have an anthology of LGBTQIA+ stories and poetry from an array of queer writers going to print.

Fitzwater also won best collection for their book The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper at the Sir Julius Vogel Awards.