Photo of writer Kagiso Lesego Molope.
Writer Kagiso Lesego Molope took the mic at the Politics and the Pen gala to talk about children starving in Gaza. She was then told to leave by security and escorted out.

Palestine and the Pen

Growing up in South Africa, I was immersed in a centuries-old culture of orature — oral storytelling. I’d sit at the feet of elders as they passed down history, proverbs and poems. I learned to be a storyteller from some of the world’s best speakers and thinkers.

One thing I was taught was never to forget. The stories we tell about ourselves must always move with the times, there must always be room for connecting the new with the old as we grow. And to tell new ones you have to stay engaged with the world around you. This is who I am. This is the tradition I come from. You look at what’s happening around and you ask yourself: how do I tell this? And how does it end? 

On May 7th, I attended Politics and the Pen, the awards night where the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for political writing is handed out. This is a star-studded night where politicians and writers come together to raise funds for the Writers’ Trust.  It was my fourth time being invited and I’ve had a good time in the past. I was a bit intimidated the first time, mainly because I knew absolutely no one and you don’t get to bring a date. You just show up alone and hope for pleasant conversation. I think this pushes people to mingle, network and go home with new contacts. I go because I value raising money for Canadian writers and I’ve come to enjoy having great conversations with some wonderful people in my profession.

Last year, I had a conversation with a Giller Prize winner about the urgency of our writing. She had just experienced tragedy in her home and we discussed how, in keeping with the times and having our work speak to world issues, putting down the pen was never an option. In another conversation, the year Jody Wilson-Raybould was shortlisted for Indian in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power, I spoke to a writer who had released a memoir about her life as a person of colour in Canadian politics and we exchanged books. The Politics and the Pen gala is an event premised on deep political analysis. We are the people who are most vocal in our circles about world events — and Politics and the Pen is where all our circles come together. 

Being from this long tradition, I thought nothing of walking up on stage right at the beginning and saying “I wish to remind us that children are dying of malnutrition in Gaza, and I invite us to think about what we can do about it. So: let’s collectively work on how we’d like this story to end.”  

I’m one hundred percent pro-Palestine but the word Palestine didn’t even escape my lips that evening. I threw something out that I thought would at best be a conversation starter, at worst maybe ignored by some. I didn’t think it was a particularly rebellious thing to do in any context, let alone the urgency of this moment. Given who was in the room—ministers, ambassadors, writers and journalists —it’s not hard to see how that group, a group which raised $530,000 in a single night, could easily change the course of history if we put our heads together. We all care about loss of life and we all care about children starving. Let’s use our networking to figure out how we can end this thing, I thought.

My words were met with a lot of heckling and swearing. Afterwards, I went to take my seat thinking “well, at least now we’re talking openly.” I expected to sit down to a lively conversation at the table about the death toll I had just quoted or the rates of malnutrition. My biggest worry was that someone would come at me about being off with the numbers!

But just as I started to sit, a man came to my table and said, “Excuse me ma’am, please take all your belongings and come with us.” When I asked him if I was being thrown out, a second man appeared and told me to “take a jacket if you have one and anything else you came with.”  

“You’re being thrown out and you know why.” 

I followed security out into the hallway, where the co-chair of Politics and the Pen waited to scold me: “You just stood right next to me and you said nothing! You just chatted with me and you didn’t say what you were about to do.” He spoke to security and confirmed my removal from the event. Security hurried me out through the nearest exit and then they stood in front of the shut doors.

I was shocked, tearful and afraid. I could barely walk or even stand still.    Am I living in a time where we must remove ourselves from the world around us? Are we now being asked to disengage from our world, to throw Gaza in the bag with all other deep, dark secrets in history? 

For seventy-five minutes I stood outside the venue, talking to a friend about what had just happened. I couldn’t make sense of it. “I didn’t even say anything offensive,” I said. “I said people were dying and children were malnourished. I said we’re in a position to do something about it.”

I kept asking: “Did I sound mad?” 

“You were very composed and respectful.”

And that’s the horror of all this: in a room full of some of the most influential people in the country, at a time when we’re witnessing a genocide, many in attendance were worried about how we’re speaking about the atrocities in Gaza and not about how we’re going to end it.

I am terrified of what this means for the people in the middle of this war — which is also to say that I’m terrified of what it means for all of us. 

The elders always taught: stories are the maps we draw for ourselves. They tell us where we come from and where we’re heading. I’m afraid of those attempting to erase this story from the map because if it is erased, it can happen again and again. And then how does our story end? Because make no mistake, it is one hundred percent our story.