Michael Klein Interviews Eve Ensler for Guernica
Eve Ensler: Our Work Now Is Embodiment
December 6, 2013
The artist-activist talks with Michael Klein about surviving cancer, working in the Congo, and how both came together in her latest book, In The Body of the World.
Eve Ensler first came to the attention of New York audiences and then of the world as the result of the wild success of The Vagina Monologues. Ensler’s play is ostensibly about a word and people being uncomfortable saying it or hearing it—but of course it’s also a conversation about something Ensler has always been watching in the culture: the refusal to speak about what is really going on with women and their bodies.
That subject led Ensler to the writing of more plays—Necessary Targets, about the treatment of women in Bosnia and The Good Body, a solo performance piece about how women in different cultures look at themselves. This led her to travel to regions of the world where women were in peril. In the Congo, she worked with local Congolese men and women to found City of Joy, a leadership center and sanctuary for women survivors of violence to come put their lives back together through therapy and life skills programming.
Ensler’s new book, In the Body of the World, is her fiercest document to date—a book about her battle with, and eventual triumph over, Stage 3 ovarian cancer. The language is immediate and raw. Just as one can finish reading a book in one sitting, one feels that this book was written the same way: it has the cadence of a locomotive. The book’s true revelation is Ensler’s ability to tell the story of her own cancer and survival alongside the equally powerful story of women on the other side of the world and their struggle to survive a different kind of disease—the epidemic of violence, in which—as she has written in the book, “nearly 8 million people have died and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped and tortured. It is an economic war fought over minerals that belong to the Congolese but are pillaged by the world.”
By her own admission, Ensler has always walked the thin line between what it means to be an artist and an activist. She is now involved with the global action One Billion Rising for Justice, an action scheduled for February 14th, 2014, when women will show up at places where they are entitled to justice—courthouses, police stations, government offices, school administration buildings, sites of environmental injustice, military courts, embassies, places of worship—and tell their abuse stories through poetry, or dance, or song or any way they choose.
I spoke with Eve at her loft in New York City. As I had hoped, we spoke of the Congo and of her book. But another surprising revelation came through: that Eve’s activism is rooted not just in anger at injustice, but in what has become a core clarified by her experience with cancer: that miracles aren’t magic; people help to create them.
—Michael Klein for Guernica
MICHAEL KLEIN: I’ve always thought of you as an activist who archives stories about women and then turns those stories into art. But in this new book, you’re telling your own story in a much more immediate way. It’s very different than anything else you’ve ever written.
EVE ENSLER: After I was diagnosed with cancer and immediately rushed into a 9-hour surgery from which I awakened with tubes and catheters and many missing organs and nodes, I experienced what it felt like to be in my body for the first time in my life. I was pure essence of body: blood, pus, piss. BODY. And so I began this journey of re-entering not only my body, but the body of the world—being with nature and connecting with my distant sister and deepening connections with friends.
In terms of my own writing, this new book felt like part of a trilogy. There was The Vagina Monologues, there was The Good Body (a play) and then, In the Body of the World. The Vagina Monologues was more removed from me in terms of how I wrote it. Then, The Good Body grew out of something that was on the surface more personal, but my contempt for my body created a huge distance. And then, In the Body of the World was the last in the trilogy, my body was really hungry to tell its story and I somehow learned to get out of the way so that could that happen.
MK: It’s interesting—that’s almost the reverse of how some writers talk about subject matter as being something where they start with themselves and move out into the world and bigger concerns. You started out the bigger world and then moved into work about you, about your body.
EE: It’s about proximity to self. What do we really mean by “self”? I think we keep getting closer and closer to that nugget or that thing that is self, but it’s constantly disappearing at the same time.
MK: Oliver Wendell Holmes said that having a chronic disease and taking care of it gives you this incredible awareness about being alive. Was that true for you?