Bernardine Evaristo has become the first writer of colour and only the second woman to be named president of the Royal Society of Literature (RSL).
Evaristo will take on the role when Dame Marina Warner steps down at the end of 2021. The president, a four-year role, is an ambassador for the society and its overall mission for the advancement of literature.
The Booker winner 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”, the organisation said. She served as vice-chair of the RSL’s governing council, as chair of its programmes committee and, since November 2020, as its vice-president. She is currently chair of the RSL’s Open Fellowship recruitment panel, which is in its first year.
Evaristo said: "I am deeply honoured to take on the role of the new president of the Royal Society of Literature. Although founded 200 years ago, the society is boldly embracing the 21st 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.”
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."
Daljit Nagra, chair of the RSL, said the organisation was "so proud" to have Evaristo as its new present. Nagra commented: "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."
In addition to Evaristo's appointment, the RSL has also announced the first 12 authors in the its International Writers programme, 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 lifelong 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 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 the council.
The programme is now open for 2022 nominations and this year’s panel—for the programme’s second year—is chaired by Hahn and will feature Maureen Freely, Mojisola Adebayo, Katherine Rundell, Nadifa Mohamed, Nick Barley, Daljit Nagra, Nell Leyshon and Sharmilla Beezmohun.
Warner said: "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."