Wanja Kimani and Helen Thomas. Thomas’ photo sourced from Beyond Face.

Two African writers are among the the 2023 RSL Literature Matters Awards, just announced yesterday by the Royal Society of Literature (RSL). Kenyan writer Wanja Kimani and Sierra Leonean-Irish writer Helen Thomas are the lucky winners.

The Royal Society of Literature (RSL) celebrates and supports writing of all kinds, to promote the idea that all literature matters. Now in their sixth year, the RSL Literature Matters Awards enable literary excellence and innovation, providing writers with financial support to undertake new projects that extend the reach of literature. These Awards are supported by RSL Fellows and the Literature Matters Supporters’ Circle.

In the 2023 edition, eight projects from writers working across multiple disciplines and forms have been chosen by judges Polly Atkin, Alycia Pirmohamed and Charlie Swinbourne. The judges remarked that there were so many excellent applications and projects submitted that they wished we could have supported more of them.

Wanja Kimani is a Kenyan visual artist, writer and curator based in rural Northamptonshire, who works with words, landscape, and the body. In 2022, she was one of the artists to represent Kenya at the 59th Venice Biennale. She received £1,500 for her project Weight of Shadows, a chapbook of poetry that she has been creating over the past few years. Whilst some of her poems have developed into visual artworks or films, others remain as text. She will be producing a chapbook to experiment with how the text can work independently.

Judge Alycia Pirmohamed commented on the brilliance of Kimani’s genre-bending work:

Weight of Shadows is a compelling writing project that is informed by multiple disciplines, such as filmmaking and textiles. We were drawn to the multifaceted nature of this project, and how these different strands beautifully weave together to centre an intersectional lived experience.

Kimani said she was thrilled about the win: “As a visual artist, it’s fantastic for my work to be seen and supported through a literary lens. My work always begins in the written form so this award from the RSL is affirming”.

Helen Thomas is of Sierra Leonean and Irish heritage and her work celebrates black British culture whilst evoking the impact of European colonialism and slavery upon Black lives. She received £2,800 for SIMITY, a project that blends poetry, dance, and music to dramatize the migration of black subjects between British America, Sierra Leone, Nova Scotia and Britain through the eyes of its young, female slave protagonist SIMITY. Without slave narratives and other literary records, this history, these lives and these stories would be lost to the world.

Thomas added she is excited to breathe new energy into the project:

Working as an individual on a creative piece that evokes the histories of migrations of communities has severe limitations. This award will allow the magic to happen … that textured but invisible moment when audiences and artists collaborate and become connected to the past and their futures by words, movement, sound and breath.

Judge Charlie Swinbourne shared his enthusiasm about Thomas’ work, saying, “We felt this was a really important project which will preserve and highlight stories that could otherwise be lost.”

The other winners of the 2023 RSL Literature Matters Awards include Pragya Agarwal, Susmita Bhattacharya, Rachel Boast, Stephanie Conn, Gayathiri Kamalakanthan, and Ellen Renton.

Congrats to the winners!