2023 was defined by extensive touring to many countries to present my books, sometimes to publicise a new translation, usually appearing at literary festivals. The year began with a visit to the Jaipaur Literature Festival in India and ended with the Guadalajara Bookfair in Mexico. Touring abroad has been a significant part of my writing career since the late 90s and this year I made over twenty work trips, most of which are listed here. People often comment that I must find travelling exhausting, but I would say that I find it energising, even exhilarating at times. Yes, I get jet lag but it doesn’t dampen my interest in being in a foreign country, especially one I’ve never visited before. Of course, there are some countries I’m happy to quickly depart, but overall, I find foreign travel fascinating.
School visit for the Auckland Writers Festival, New Zealand.
I love meeting new audiences internationally and sharing my work and ideas. Even if a visit is brief, it can still be transportative. I’m not sure I’d be the writer I am today if I didn’t travel, something which started in my early twenties. Travel gives me a broadening engagement with different societies, ways of being and perspectives, and it helps me to see my own society afresh, with a renewed clarity and critical eye that feeds my creativity. Literary events and festivals are also essential for meeting other writers – where we gather, make contact, connect, network, even form lasting friendships. One day I’ll write more about my travels. Until then, I’ve started to use Instagram as a visual record of most of my recent trips.
Interviewed by Jenny Niven, the new Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Bali, Indonesia.
UK-Trini writers, Monique Roffey and Anthony Joseph at Bocas Lit Fest, Port of Spain, Trinidad
The ‘Black Britain Writing Back’ series continues with Hamish-Hamilton-Penguin, whereby we bring books from the past back into circulation. In October 2023 we published two Welsh titles: Dat’s Love, a collection of short stories by Leonora Brito and Sugar and Slate, a memoir by Charlotte Williams. I am the series curator, Ruby Fatimilehin is the series editor and Simon Prosser is the publisher. We have now published thirteen books since 2021, each with an introduction by myself. The latest two books are wonderful and deserve a new readership. Sadly, Leonora is no longer with us, but Charlotte is – so why not consider booking her for your events, festivals and podcasts? Black Welsh writers are not very visible and she has so much to say.
Charlotte Williams as a child with her mother
Charlotte Williams today
As the Literature Mentor for the Rolex Mentor & Protege Arts Initiative I met with my protege, the Ghanaian novelist Ayesha Harruna Attah, several times throughout the year – in London, in Trinidad for the Bocas Festival, and for the Rolex Arts Festival in Athens. We were also interviewed for a CNN ‘Inside Africa’ documentary on African arts, broadcast last November.
CNN filming with Ayesha at the British Museum
It was my second year as President of the Royal Society of Literature, a figurehead role, and I cannot be prouder of what this hardworking and inspiring organisation has achieved, especially with limited resources. Serious props go to the leadership and team headed by Molly Rosenberg and Martha Stenhouse as Director and Head of Operations respectively. And a huge thanks to Daljit Nagra, Chair of Council, and Irenosen Okojie, Vice Chair, whose voluntary service helps steer the ship. The RSL is dedicated to improving the fortunes and careers of a wide range of writers, and it does so admirably, but in a patriarchal society, women’s leadership is often undervalued, so let me put it on record, Molly and Martha are both incredible leaders, and because of their commitment, the RSL continues to be thriving and relevant, fresh and forward-looking, inclusive and impactful organisation. It always operates to the highest professional and critical standards, while working with, and rewarding, excellent writers, and engaging with a wide range of reading and literature communities. By all measurements, the RSL is flourishing during their tenure, and I salute them.
RSL highlights for 2023: the support of 101 writers through paid commissions; 46 new Fellows and 15 new Honorary Fellows appointed (a lifetime honour) including a new cohort of international Fellows; 25 public literature events (more than some festivals), and two new writers’ schemes-awards: the Jerwood Poetry Award and the Entente Litteraire – a UK-France literary prize for young adult literature. For more details.
For my annual RSL lecture at the Summer Party, I spoke about issues pertaining to creative writers and the rapid onset of AI technology via systems such as ChatGPT. I also appeared in a short Sky Arts film, broadcast in the autumn, celebrating the Sky Arts/ Royal Society of Literature Writers Award, a mentoring scheme I initiated during my role as the Sky Arts’ Literature Ambassador in 2021.
In conversation with three of the writers who were mentees on the Sky/RSL scheme: Sarah Lucas, Christina Fonthes & Kim Squirrel.
In July I delivered the Friends of the Bodleian Annual Lecture. ‘Bridging the Gap’ for the University of Oxford, exploring the shared humanity to be found in novels by black British women.
Talking about the importance of the Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta at the Bodleian
And I delivered a British Academy lecture on the art of the African diaspora, at Coventry University. Other writings include an article in British Vogue marking 2023 as a breakthrough year for black British women novelists, and an essay for the Royal Academy magazine, guest-edited by the artist Hew Locke, on artists engaging with imperial history, to accompany their exhibition, Entangled Pasts, Shared Futures, curated by Dr Dorothy Price.
I also wrote an essay on ‘aliveness’ for the National Portrait Gallery book to accompany Ekow Eshun’s guest-curated exhibition there, The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure.
Ekow Eshun, who also curated the sublime group exhibition, In the Black Fantastic, at the Hayward Gallery in 2022.
Both exhibitions are forthcoming this February.
I continue to teach at Brunel University London, where I am Professor of Creative Writing; I annually attend graduation at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in my role as President for this drama school where I graduated in 1982.
A Rose Bruford College graduation photo
I am an occassional host of events, a handful this year, including interviewing Afua Hirsch at the Wimbledon BookFest on the release of her new book Decolonising My Body: A Radical Exploration of Rituals and Beauty. I love it, there’s nothing else like it out there. I also interviewed Miriam Margoyles for Fane Productions at Sheffield City Hall. Her 2021 memoir, This Much is True, is the wildest ride.
I hosted a Brunel University London event ‘On Language and Creativity’ with my creative writer colleagues: Hannah Lowe, Helen Cullen, Claire Lynch, Daljit Nagra.
Mr Loverman was a BBC World Book Club choice last year. Catch it on BBC Sounds. It’s also being filmed for the BBC as an eight-part drama, to be broadcast in 2024, my first television adaptation. I cannot wait to see it out in the world.
In 2023 I was Chair of judges for the prestigious Forward Prize for Poetry best collections’ category. These were won by Jacob Allen-Paisant for Best Book, and Momtaza Mehri for Best First Book – both such deserving winners. Check out all the shortlisted poets – a testament to the fact that UK poetry is in rude health.
I also received some honours myself; always deeply appreciative of whatever comes my way.
Signing off for another year! Hope it’s a good one for you — and the world. We can but hope while also playing our part to make a difference.