The Writers’ House was a nice place where writers were accorded the freedom of a simple literary life. It was a place to work without worry, where one could enter the contemplative space of literature, enjoying the bright warmth of unfettered creativity.
The outside world was barely noticeable inside the House. News arrived by smart phone or computer but these reports were easily muted. Political discussion occurred in the corridors but never too much talk and not the wrong talk, nothing that might be defined as tonally ‘less hopeful.’ It was possible to hear about a crisis occurring in the streets or in another country and say, “I do not know” or “I cannot imagine” and remain comfortable in that not knowing and not imagining.
Of course, there were ruptures—moments of political upheaval and “narrative reckoning” (to quote a beautiful poet), when not knowing and not imagining were briefly impossible. When such ruptures occurred, a few doors to the Writers’ House might blow open and the air would grow unsettled. Outsiders, and even some insiders, would underscore the situation at the House, how it was clearly not designed for everyone, how its pretense of worldly innocence was a luxury and maybe even a monstrous lie. It was not uncommon during those ruptures to encounter members of the Writers’ House in a sudden state of soul searching, asking: What does a writer do? Write? What is writing?
Ruptures aside, daily life always resumed. There were pep talks for writers experiencing barriers. There were new hydraulic chairs to raise spirits and uplift those denied a simpler, unconditional humanism. Even in times when it seemed the Writers’ House was finished for good, it eventually recovered. There were newly announced imprints and brown bag conversations on equity. There were book launches with speeches that gave a feeling of fresh camaraderie, speeches that expressed a wish for diversity in an unconflicted world. There was prize season when everyone turned up, so handsomely attired. It felt like a collective rheostat slowly building into a beautiful golden light; a ceremony to restore a sense of harmony.
But were things really the same? Had the Writers’ House ever been truly harmonious? With every rupture, a few more people assessed the situation and thought, the house does not belong to me the way the world does. Every time a door or window broke open, the building seemed a little more fragile and dubious. Looking around, one began to notice rebel wings composed of writers who had agreed to the house rules because they needed a place to work but who had never truly bought the idea of a ‘pure writing life.’ There were fiery playwrights who believed the struggle for equity within the literary world could not be extricated from the struggle for equitable healthcare, decent housing, environmental justice, land restitution. There were undomesticated poets who found it impossible to place a firewall between writing and the worlds that gave rise to it.
In the autumn of 2023, another door broke open when protestors disrupted a ceremony for a Big Book prize. They wanted the world to know of the award’s ties to a major Israeli weapons manufacturer, whose drones and arms were being used to kill Gazan civilians in retaliation for the killing of Israeli civilians by Hamas a month before. It was not comfortable to be interrupted. Some people responded by booing. A few quietly listened and followed when the protestors were escorted out of the room to ensure they were not poorly treated. Others tried to smooth things over by ignoring the disruption, later sharing pretty posts on social media about the evening’s events that reaffirmed a belief in ‘celebrating books.’ (It was unclear what these posts were meant to convey, perhaps that the protestors were anti-celebration and anti-book?) Still, the question lingered—what is this prize, this house, this world built on? Some writers penned an open letter thanking the protestors for being brave and for waking people up. They decried the genocidal collective punishment of Gazan civilians and a death toll that at that point surpassed 13,000. They called for the criminal charges against the protestors to be dropped.
Even the writer who won the Big Award the night of the disruption signed the letter. It made sense. She had, after all, written a beautiful novel about complicity. A book that questioned what it meant to practice obedience on a “ruined earth” and whether “daily choosing the path of least resistance” might be “the most abominable course of action.” Was it possible to be blameless and innocent? What would it mean to create a house with “no more padding between the word and the world”?
One did not need to read the novel to be thinking about numb acquiescence or toxic normalcy or the fact that not one of us can be shielded from accountability. Nor did one need to attend the award ceremony to start wondering about the true nature of The Writers’ House. To ask: how a community that presented itself as safe and convivial, progressive and thoughtful, could remain silent in the face of an ongoing genocide happening in full view. How anyone who believed in culture and self-expression could turn away when universities, museums, and libraries were being destroyed and when writers around the world were being bullied and censured for speaking out. How a Writers’ House, sensitive to the power and nuances of language, could fall ominously quiet as language broke down on a global scale—contorting into a language of dehumanization, a language of arm traders, a language of journalistic dereliction, a language of perpetrator-less bombings. A language of deadly sanitization, of looking away, of not wanting to offend, of zero ethics, of impunity. A language of 23, 000 dead civilians and counting.
Writers bend their craft toward life. They find ways to say what cannot be said. When a house has become an enclosure demanding maximum agreement, when it is built on loud silence and repressive ‘respectability,’ when it atrophies social worlds and forecloses solidarity with a civilian population struggling to live with dignity in their own lands—it is time to leave the house. It is time to leave the house with its doors open and the wind blowing through and it is time to stand outside. There are writers who were never impervious and who never had a choice.
The politically neutral house was always a fiction but Gaza has made a sham of writerly innocence and disconnection. It has also offered an alternative path. Not the solitary path of individualism and singular achievement but a path that holds closer to the ground of collective being and future planetary survival.
KYO MACLEAR is a novelist, essayist, and children’s author. She is the author of the hybrid memoir Birds Art Life (2017), winner of the Trillium Book Award, and Unearthing (2023), winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award Nonfiction. Kyo holds a doctorate in environmental humanities and is on faculty at the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA.