On a 19-city tour for her latest book In the Body of the World (a harrowing cancer memoir interwoven with reflections on both an ongoing commitment to protect women’s bodies from violence, and protections from the earth’s destruction) Tony Award-winning playwright, celebrated activist and Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler took a moment to speak with Salty Eggs.
Celebrating her 60th year this month, Ensler talks about what activism at 60 looks like, her immense gratitude for her extra years, the possibility of using sickness as a time of transformation, why she no longer seeks out stories of rape and trauma from others, and the absolute importance of self-care.
SE: You have a very important birthday this month. What does activism look like at 60 for you?
EE: I actually feel more energized than I’ve ever felt. I have profound gratitude for being alive and feel that I’ve been given this extra time to try to end violence against women and the earth and end economic injustice and all the other things.
How has your activism evolved over the years?
I’ve been an activist since I was a teenager and now it’s just who I am, it turns out.
Do you feel like it’s gotten easier to stand up?
In some ways and and in others, no. Sometimes it feels like it’s Ground Hog’s Day. We just keep circling back on these big issues and when we move forward, we get pushed back. But sometimes I feel like we make huge leaps forward.
And then sometimes I feel like I’m really ready for the next generation to move forward and I’m very happy to see so many young women and men standing up and resisting. The life of an activist is an amazing life and I’ve very lucky that I’ve been able to put my words on the line and make theater that created some kind of resistance. I’m happy to be in the struggle with millions of others around the world.
This is a ridiculously broad question but what do you think is still the biggest threat to women? Or issue that you keep circling back on, as you said?
Well, a funny thing is patriarchy is still the biggest threat. We haven’t deconstructed patriarchy yet and I think violence is the methodology that patriarchy uses. The kind of lethal combination of escalated corporate greed and capitalism along with patriarchy seems deadly to women on every level whether it’s economic injustice, bodies being commodified, women being sent into dangerous factories that are about to collapse or being shot because they want to learn. I think these two forces together are devastating to women.
In the book, you write about how you viewed your body as a burden. That you didn’t feel tied to it really until you got cancer. Can you explain the evolution of how you felt then to how you feel about your body now?
I love my body. I am profoundly thankful for my body. It let me live. It learned how to function while losing a lot of parts. It’s incredibly healthy now and energized even though it has no reason to be after all that it has been through. During the chemo treatments, I feel like I burned away a lot that needed to go. A lot of that projected badness and a lot of the things perpetrators projected onto me. A lot of that contamination I was holding onto it is gone.
Much of the book talks about your cancer treatment, what did you read for inspiration when you were going through chemo? Was there a book like this for you or was that also some of the inspiration for writing the book?
Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor. I read The History of Cancer but I needed something more specific. I needed to know what was going on in the body while going through chemo. I wanted to share that.
You’re on this 19-city book tour, what has the reaction after the readings been like so far?
The reactions have been so emotional and so deep and so gorgeous. And I’m so moved at other people’s desire to be in their bodies. Women hunger to get back into their bodies. Many women feel like they’ve already left their bodies.
Much of your work whether it has focused on your own sexual abuse or violence against women on a large scale seems very heavy, very emotionally taxing. How do you practice self-care?
I think things are changing. I listen to my body more. I’m in my body now. When I need to rest, I rest. I do yoga. When I have too much stuff going on, I stop.
And what about listening to other women’s stories of abuse?
I don’t listen to stories anymore. I did for 15 years and I’m totally convinced! I’m in! But I do think there was a time when I needed to listen to those stories and I think those stories informed my work and compelled me to become an activist.
As a reader, there is something very powerful that happens when you connect the cancer that was in your own body to the cancer that is in caged chickens, the runoff from dangerous companies, environmental pollution to other women’s wombs. Can you tell us what that initial connection in your brain felt like?
When you get cancer, you just kind of get it, the whole carelessness of all we’ve done with desecration and fracturing of the environment. And I just thought of all the ways cancer gets in to us, right? Whether it’s what’s injected into chickens, whether it’s radiation in the air and I thought about all of the people who’ve had cancer.
You mention with that connection, there comes great responsibility, can you explain?
I think we have to look at how we are causing divisions and splitting and fractions in our everyday lives because that’s what cancer is, is psychotically subdividing cells, right? So how are we dividing ourselves and subdividing ourselves. I think that is really the ‘big’ question. I think what I’m looking for now is how we connect and how we become whole and how we move forward with positive energy. And that’s not to say one’s not addressing the big political issues but I think I’m much more interested in the connections than the divisions.
Eve Ensler will share stories from her latest In the Body of the World at a discussion and book signing at Coral Gables Congregational Church, Saturday, June 1 from 6 to 8 p.m. Visit www.mycgcc.org for more info.