Ian Penman Bags The 2024 RSL Ondaatje Prize

By Olivia Emily

2 weeks ago

'I can’t believe it'

If you enjoy reading poetry and prose that really gets under the skin of a place, add this shortlist to your TBR. The Royal Society of Literature (RSL)’s annual Ondaatje Prize is back, and one talented writer has bagged the top prize: Ian Penman for his novel Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors.

‘I can’t believe it,’ Ian said on collecting his prize from Jans Ondaatje Rolls, overseeing the ceremony on behalf of her father Christopher. ‘I’d like to thank Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who I think is astonishing and created a culture very much not like our own. Without him there wouldn’t be this book, and I dedicate this award to him. Thank you so much.’

Chair of judges Xiaolu Guo praised Penman’s ingenuity and originality: ‘This is the only book I have read twice this year. Truly it is thousands of mirrors in terms of the thoughts, images and references running through this reflective and wonderfully interior work. The world of European cinema, especially Fassbinder’s film seen through Ian Penman’s eyes, has transported me to a tantalizing place called post-war Europe. The book brings me back to my youth and my film school years in the east and west, and it reminds me of how powerful images have shaped our very understanding of love and life.’

Congratulations, Ian!

RSL Ondaatje Prize 2024

‘Place has always been important to me as a writer, and I’ve loved the brilliant variety of its imaginative reflections in the longlist,’ says Francis Spufford, one of the judges of the prize, alongside Jan Carson and Xiaolu Guo.

‘Judging the RSL Ondaatje Prize has been a fantastic opportunity to discover some wonderful writers I’d never previously encountered,’ adds Carson. I’ve spent my winter in glorious hibernation, reading an incredible range of thought-provoking, wise and timely books. I honestly couldn’t think of a better way to spend my time.’

‘It has been a rich and intense experience reading all the wonderful nominations for this year,’ adds fellow judge Guo. ‘It is hard to make a longlist, even harder a shortlist. All I can say is that my mind has been nourished by my fellow writers, by the familiar and unfamiliar voices, those from near and far, which have expanded my imagination’s horizon.’

If you’d like to explore the shortlist, you can see it below.

RSL Ondaatje Prize 2024 Shortlisted Books

The Shortlist

Spanning fiction, non-fiction and poetry, the six books on the shortlist for the 2024 RSL Ondaatje Prize are:

  • Falling Animals by Sheila Armstrong
  • Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad
  • A Flat Place by Noreen Masud
  • Cuddy by Benjamin Myers
  • No Man’s Land by David Nash
  • Fassbinder, Thousands of Mirrors by Ian Penman – WINNER
Falling Animals book

Who Was On The Longlist?

The judges originally whittled 194 eligible entries down to 14 titles making up 2024’s RSL Ondaatje Prize longlist. The longlisted books that sadly did not make the shortlist were:

  • The Britannias by Alice Albinia
  • Thunderclap by Laura Cumming
  • Local Interest by Emily Hasler
  • Nothing Ever Just Disappears by Diarmuid Hester
  • In Search of Berlin by John Kampfner
  • Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin
  • Two Lights by James Roberts
  • Elowen by William Henry Searle

This year's longlisted authors for the Ondaatje Prize

What Is The RSL Ondaatje Prize?

The Ondaatje Prize is an annual award presented by the Royal Society of Literature recognising an outstanding work of poetry or prose published in the last year that best evokes the spirit of a particular place. Now in its 20th year, it is one of the RSL’s 10 annual awards and prizes which strive to recognise, celebrate and reward the widest range of writers, celebrating literature in all of its forms.

The winner of the prize is bestowed with £10,000. The prize is named for its sponsor: businessman, philanthropist, adventurer and writer Sir Philip Christopher Ondaatje. Eligible titles include any piece of poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction, that evokes ‘the spirit of a place’, published in the last year and written by someone who is a citizen of or who has been a resident in the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.

Who Are The Judges?

Francis Spufford, Jan Carson and Xiaolu Guo are this year’s judges. They selected the 14 longlisted works, and will also select the ultimate winner, who will be announced on 14 May 2024.

Francis is an author who previously won the Ondaatje in 2017 for his novel Golden Hill, set in New York. Meanwhile, Carson is an author who won the EU Prize for Literature in 2019 for her novel The Fire Starters, and a fellow of the RSL, while Guo is a novelist, memoirist and film-maker known for her explorations of migration, alienation and transnational identities.


Learn more about the prize at rsliterature.org