I overheard two writers talking here last week, both men. "I think," one said to the other, "I'm going to have to change sex." The other nodded. They were only half in jest.

They were discussing the role of women in New Zealand letters. It is quite true that our most famous writer is a woman, Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923); and that since her death other women novelists have attracted attention overseas -- Robin Hyde, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Janet Frame. But they were considered exceptional or cerebral, their works only marginally related to the New Zealand experience. A male myth taking root with John Mulgan's depression-years novel, Man Alone, had grown up, superseding all else, and in a beer-swilling male-dominated society the popular poets and prophets -- and certainly the award winners -- have traditionally been men. Not any longer.

Six of the seven major prizes for literature awarded here last year went to women: a playwright, a poet, a children's writer, a short-story writer and two novelists. And while this may or may not reflect a superior quality in the writing, it is certainly a reflection of a changing society -- and in large measure of an explosion in feminism. Publishers, libraries, book stores, college principals report a hunger for works by and about New Zealand women; and women writers are filling the need, as one critic puts it, "in revolutionary proportions." It is all quite recent.

Historians, recalling that New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote (1893), point to a rising tide of dominance by women in the nation's affairs beginning in the '60s -- and a consequent change in attitudes.

"Make a sexist remark," a politician said the other day, "and you're likely to be sat on, not just by the women present but by the men."

Thirty years ago when the country's greatest lyric poet, Rex Fairburn, died, nobody noticed; his grave mouldered, overgrown. Late last year when the little-known Keri Hulme, 38, won Britain's top literary award, the Booker Prize, with her novel The Bone People, politicians made speeches in the House. The Prime Minister, David Lange, immediately made her a "cultural ambassador" and feted her with a televised reception in Parliament rather more impressive than that given New Zealand sportsmen returning with gold medals from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The Keri Hulme case is revealing and freakish.

The Bone People is a long (470 pages) prose poem about a clash of cultures, Maori and European. A jumbled, powerful book. Over 10 years in the making, it was rejected by several local publishers as "shapeless" or "too unconventional" and then, when the author was about to give up and "embalm the whole thing as a doorstop," it was taken up by a women's collective called Spiral -- a trio of inexperienced young women, two of them students and the third a housewife.

"We came together by accident," one recalls, "through a confusion of names. Two of us are called Evans -- we were getting each other's mail by mistake. We called each other by telephone. That's how we got together." They secured a grant; chivvied friends and borrowed money; arranged type-setting on the cheap; proof-read the book nights; packaged and distributed it working from a disused art gallery. There was no promotion.

"To our surprise a first edition of 2,000 copies went in seven weeks. A second 2,000 was gone in seven days. At this stage commercial publishers came to us. We were too tired to bother with another edition. But we weren't silly. We claimed a 50 percent stake and auctioned the rights to the highest bidder." THIS, THE first auction of its kind here, was in 1984. The rest is history. Since last November the work has earned its one time tobacco-picker-turned-author Keri Hulme $ NZ 100,000: translations are sold in half a dozen languages, sales (over 100,000 -- 25,000 of those in the States) continue to climb weekly. Hulme is now a cult figure, with mail reportedly stacked in her living room four feet deep and a constant stream of visitors, invitations to serve on government bodies and travel abroad. She has recently been in the United States on a reading tour, while her Spiral associates -- now a power in their own right -- are invited to Germany. The case is symptomatic.

"You sense," the poet Bill Manhire says, "some alchemy at work every time a woman publishes here. A juggernaut, you feel, is behind her -- some women's group or women's collective or feminist enterprise. To the women readers -- and they're our majority -- the sudden flowering by women writers is like rain after a long drought. And you see why. Women are more down to earth: they appeal to a neglected audience, they have an intimate, quite different relationship to their readers: they're not afraid to write of the violence they see around them and they have the confidence to break new ground."

And the publishers are cashing in.

A key figure is Janet Frame, author of several novels. Prized abroad but long held "difficult" here -- regarded as a slightly mad recluse writing rarefied novels set in mental homes -- Frame has recently published a three-tiered autobiography which has won a string of local awards and she is now, after Hulme, the most sought-after author in the land. In Britain a women's press has begun paperbacking Frame's early novels. The same surge of popularity is enjoyed at a different level by an ex-librarian and writer of children's stories, Margaret Mahy, another recluse. Mahy publishes in England and in the United States. Since 1982 she has twice won Britain's prestigious Carnegie Medal, the only writer to do so.

Still, one shouldn't push the women's case, the "Keri Hulme syndrome," too exclusively. The New Zealand male is not obliterated -- witness a new and burgeoning film industry, successfully based for the most part on stories and novels written by men. The Quiet Earth, currently screening in the United States and Britain, is an example. Last month a Writers' and Readers' Forum was held in the capital, Wellington, as part of an international arts festival; the forum featured men and women writers engaged for the most part in "shop talk" about their work. Minority fringe stuff -- or so I thought.

I went to one session. Couldn't get in. "Sold out," the organizers said. "Come back tomorrow." It was "standing room only" three sessions a day, every day for a week. Nobody can quite explain it.

What seems to have happened is that the Hulme case has thrown a spotlight on New Zealand literature as a whole, highlighting a range of new and exciting creative energies previously unsuspected, much as Pat Lawlor's play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll first projected Australia onto the world's literary map a quarter-century ago. It's an old kiwi joke that when you fly in here from overseas you are told by the pilot to tighten your seat belt and "put your watch back 25 years." The timing of this delayed literary fuse, now igniting sparks into the future, would seem for New Zealand to be about right.

James McNeish is a novelist living in Wellington, New Zealand.