The Royal Society of Literature (RSL), the UK’s charity for the advancement of literature, has today announced that Professor Bernardine Evaristo OBE FRSL is to be the new President of the organisation when Dame Marina Warner steps down at the end of 2021. The Society, which celebrates its 201st birthday today, has also announced the first 12 authors in the RSL International Writers programme, part of RSL 200, launched last year.
Professor Bernardine Evaristo OBE FRSL said: ‘I am deeply honoured to take on the role of the new President of the Royal Society of Literature. Although founded two hundred years ago, the Society is boldly embracing the twenty-first century as a great champion of the possibilities of a more egalitarian culture for literature. Storytelling is embedded in our DNA as human beings – it is sewn into the narrative arc of our lives, it is in our relationships, desires and conflicts, and it is the prism through which we explore and understand ourselves and the world in which we live. Literature is not a luxury, but essential to our civilisation. I am so proud, therefore, to be the figurehead of such an august and robust literature organisation that is so actively and urgently committed to being inclusive of the widest range of outstanding writers from every demographic and geographical location in Britain, and to reaching marginalised communities through literature projects, including introducing young people in schools to some of Britain’s leading writers who visit, teach and discuss their work with them. I look forward to the next four years as the figurehead of such a wonderfully impressive organisation.’
Founded in 1820, the RSL acts as a voice for the value of literature, honouring and supporting emerging and established writers whilst creating a bridge between authors and audiences to engage as many people as possible with the breadth of UK literature. The President is a beacon for literary excellence in the UK, bringing the RSL’s communities of readers and writers together. In this role, Evaristo will act as an ambassador for the Society and its overall mission, the advancement of literature.
Bernardine Evaristo was elected a Fellow of the RSL in 2004 and has been a pivotal part of a wide range of the Society’s programmes and committees, from chairing events to running workshops for young people. She served as Vice-Chair of the RSL’s governing Council, as Chair of its Programmes Committee (with oversight of public events, publications and outreach programmes) and most recently as Vice-President since November 2020. Evaristo is currently the Chair of the RSL’s Open Fellowship recruitment panel in its first year; she also took part in the 40 Under 40 Fellowship initiative as a panellist. In 2021, Evaristo was appointed a Sky Arts Ambassador and launched the Sky Arts RSL Writers Awards providing mentoring with RSL Fellows to emerging writers of colour.
The RSL International Writers programme was announced last year as part of RSL 200, a five-year festival launched in 2020 with a series of major new initiatives and 60 new appointments championing the great diversity of writing and writers in the UK. The programme is a new award recognising the contribution of writers across the globe to literature in English, and the power of literature to transcend borders to bring people together. A life-long honour, new writers will be invited to join the RSL’s International Writers each year forming an ever-expanding global community of authors.
The inaugural 12 writers to be recognised in this category come from countries across the globe including Antigua, China, Democratic Republic of the Congo, France, Israel, Jamaica, Lebanon, South Korea, Spain and the United States of America. Together their range spans essays, novels, poems, non-fiction and opera libretti. They are: Don Mee Choi, Annie Ernaux, David Grossman, Jamaica Kincaid, Yan Lianke, Amin Maalouf, Alain Mabanckou, Javier Marías, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Claudia Rankine, Olga Tokarczuk and Dubravka Ugrešić.
Readers and writers were asked to recommend writers outside the UK for nomination. Daniel Hahn chaired a panel of Fellows and Honorary Fellows including Lisa Appignanesi, Syima Aslam, Sophie Collins, Sasha Dugdale, Max Porter, Philippe Sands, and Elif Shafak. The panel nominated the RSL International Writers, who were then appointed by Council. The programme is now open for 2022 nominations and this year’s panel – for the programme’s second year – is chaired by Daniel Hahn and will feature Maureen Freely, Mojisola Adebayo, Katherine Rundell, Nadifa Mohamed, Nick Barley, Daljit Nagra, Nell Leyshon and Sharmilla Beezmohun.
Dame Marina Warner said: ‘Bernardine Evaristo is one of literature’s most passionate and effective advocates. She is a garlanded writer of brilliant inventiveness and long been a leading inspiration in the vision of the RSL. In the lingering aftermath of the pandemic, her vivid, strong spirit, experience and dedication will bring fresh dynamism and energy to all our plans and activities.
In celebration of literature beyond national boundaries, and in solidarity with the makers of literature everywhere, I salute our first group of RSL International Writers, and look forward to reading more of their work and to seeing and hearing them in future collaborations.’
Daljit Nagra, Chair of the RSL said: ‘We are so proud to have Bernardine Evaristo as our President. She is a seminal writer. She is a trailblazer. As a writer she speaks with striking originality about under-represented voices, as an advocate she has championed neglected authors, and as a campaigner she has given voice to the value of literature. Across all media, her voice rings out in passionate open-mindedness, recognisably unique and essential.
Solidarity between writers across languages and nations is essential for creative enrichment and empowerment, and the RSL’s International Writers are an important way of encouraging our literary engagements with the greatest authors from around the world.’
Daniel Hahn, Chair of the RSL International Writers panel said: ‘From hundreds of public nominations, and after much reading, discovery and discussion, my fellow panellists and I have finally struggled our way to an inaugural list of twelve RSL International Writers. Our writers span continents, forms, ambitions, influence, aesthetics. They were born in twelve different countries – though more than half have since migrated to other countries, and several have migrated between languages, too. These are global writers. They are original, and they are brilliant.
Even for a multilingual judging panel, most of the writers on our list, and the large majority of those we considered, were only available to us through the work of literary translators. Indeed, it’s only because of their work that the idea of great global writers can exist at all. The RSL International Writers programme is based on a belief that literature is not constrained by territory, nationality, language, but can span the world. I can’t imagine a list of twelve contemporary writers whose work could demonstrate more compellingly what literature can do, and what it can be.’