Bridgerton actor Adjoa Andoh, I May Destroy You creator Michaela Coel, Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies and poet Lemn Sissay are among the new fellows elected to the Royal Society of Literature (RSL).
The RSL, the UK’s charity for the advancement of literature, announced 60 new appointments at an event held at Battersea Arts Centre in London.
Among these were 29 writers chosen through the RSL Open initiative, which aims to elect 60 fellows over two years from communities, backgrounds and experiences currently under-represented in UK literary culture. In total, 44 new fellows were named, along with 16 honorary fellows.
Bernardine Evaristo, president of the RSL, said the Open initiative is so important because traditionally the fellowship has been “statistically, disproportionately representing writers from particular communities, and a lot of people were excluded, simply because the fellowships are nominated by fellows, so people nominate people they know.” Redressing the balance through this initiative is hugely important, the Booker winner explained, because “we all deserve to be active and equal participants in the production and consumption of literature that is as wide-ranging as ourselves.”
Evaristo, who is the first person of colour and only the second woman to serve as president in the RSL’s 202 year history, said she knows “how symbolic it is for me to be the president”. The fact that “we’ve reached this point now, where somebody such as myself can be the figurehead for such an important organisation” is “very exciting”, she added. As she inducted the new fellows, she told them “you are joining a truly progressive society”.
Among the RSL Open fellows, who were nominated by readers and writers from across the UK and then considered by a panel chaired by Evaristo, are Junk author Melvin Burgess, poet Joelle Taylor, My Name Is Leon author Kit de Waal and Frances Ryan, recognised for her book Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People, as well as her journalism for the Guardian.
Taylor, who is co-curator and host of Out-Spoken Live, said the fellowship was “validation as a writer and as someone who has worked for 20-odd years across sink council estates and secondary schools”.
As well as being “amongst a community of internationally respected and nuanced writers” and being part of “the conversation about literature in the UK and internationally”, Taylor said she also hoped to used her fellowship to promote the work of “as many working-class, LGBTQI+ writers as possible”.
That aim is “something I’ve carried throughout my career”, she said. “The pen doesn’t belong to me, it’s a baton in a relay race.”
De Waal, whose debut novel My Name Is Leon was recently adapted for a BBC drama, said being named a fellow was a “great privilege”.
She hoped the “if you can see it, you can be it” adage would apply to her fellowship. “I am 62, nearly,” she said. “I’m working class, I’m Black, I’m Irish, I started writing in my mid 40s. That, I hope, is an inspiration to people.”
To be nominated as a fellow, a writer must have published or produced two works of outstanding literary merit, and nominations must be made by two fellows or honorary fellows. This year Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s associate editor, culture, and Costa book award winners Monique Roffey and Hannah Lowe were chosen along with Coel, Davies and Sissay.
Writer and poet Lowe said the fellowship was “in some degree more important for what I might be able to do in terms of promoting other writers than for myself”.
She hoped to promote writers at an earlier stage in their career, “voices that wouldn’t normally perhaps be heard”.
The RSL also announced 16 new honorary fellows, people who have made a “significant contribution to the advancement of literature in the UK, or who have rendered special service to the society”.
These include Andoh, Words of Colour co-founder Joy Francis, and Di Speirs, books editor at BBC Radio.
Nominations are now being sought for the second year of the RSL Open initiative, and the final fellows will be chosen by a panel chaired by Damian Barr.
As well as the announcement of the fellows, the event also saw the Benson medal, for service to literature across a whole career, awarded to storyteller, author and playwright Sandra A Agard, who is currently a learning facilitator for schools at the British Library.
The event also saw the largest mass induction in the history of the RSL, with 148 writers and supporters of literature, who were elected fellows or honorary fellows between the years of 2020-2022, signing their names in the RSL roll book using a pen from the charity’s permanent collection. The pens belonged to authors including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, TS Eliot and Lord Byron. Jean Rhys and Andrea Levy’s pens were used for the first time this year.
This year’s new fellows in full
The 15 new fellows
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Michael Arditti, Claire Armitstead, Susie Boyt, Nick Cave, Michaela Coel, Russell T Davies, Ferdinand Dennis, Bonnie Greer, Joanne Harris, Hannah Lowe, Ian McMillan, Monique Roffey, Jacqueline Rose and Lemn Sissay.
The 29 new Open fellows
Sulaiman Addonia, Mona Arshi, Polly Atkin, Rachael Boast, Malika Booker, Melvin Burgess, Kayo Chingonyi, Fred D’Aguiar, Carys Davies, Kit de Waal, Kit Fan, Leontia Flynn, Niall Griffiths, Xiaolu Guo, Meena Kandasamy, Bhanu Kapil, Hannah Khalil, Zaffar Kunial, Joanne Limburg, Francesca Martinez, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Lisa McGee, Fiona Mozley, Raman Mundair, Musa Okwonga, Frances Ryan, Cherry Smyth, Charlie Swinbourne and Joelle Taylor.
The 16 new honorary fellows
Sandra Agard, Adjoa Andoh, Suresh Ariaratnam, Nicola Beauman, Julie Blake, Steve Cook, Steve Dearden, Joy Francis, Helen Garnons-Williams, Jane Gregory, Christie Hickman, Nicolette Jones, Julian May, Deirdre Osborne, Polly Pattullo and Di Speirs.
• This article was amended on 3 January 2023. A previous version named Joy Francis as founder of Words of Colour rather than co-founder.