Fighting Violence with Joy: An Interview with Eve Ensler

For decades, feminist revolutionary Eve Ensler has combined art, activism and her unrelenting passion to oppose the violence against women and girls that pervades our world. Widely known for her play The Vagina Monologues, her most recent written work—the memoir In the Body of the World—combines heartbreaking and inspiring stories of women from the Democratic Republic of Congo with her personal story of pain, trauma and reconnection with her body through her struggle with cancer.

Ms. contributor  Anna Therese Day spoke with Ensler about her book, her work with women of the Congo, her latest feminist activism and her advice for young feminist organizers.

Ms. Blog: In your new book, you eloquently connect your personal struggle through cancer treatment with your experience working with women in the Congo—women who have struggled through unspeakable trauma and injustice. Was there a moment when these parallels became clear for you, or was it a process?

Eve Ensler: At the beginning of the book, I think that the cancer awoke me to the crisis that was my body at the same time that the Congo was bringing me into the crisis of the world. Those two things combined in a synergistic way to bring out what I thought was going to be the beginning of the end.

That said, I think that there are a number of ways that they were interacting and emerging—I don’t even know how to describe the dance that was happening. One very specific, literal thing was that we were in the process of building City of Joy—a place that had been conceived of by the women of Congo, built by the women of Congo, that will be run and owned by the women of Congo. Our job on this side of the world was to find the resources so that the women could fulfill their dreams. I had committed to that and was in the middle of that when I was diagnosed. So much of what happened to me in that whole cancer-conversion process was me knowing that I had to live to fulfill my promise, and to some degree I really attribute the women of Congo for saving my life. Had I not been struggling to see City of Joy open, I don’t know what my outcome would have been. It really was a huge part of me getting up every day and fighting to stay alive.

I think the other parallels were clearly that, for so many years being on the road and being an activist and listening to the stories of women, we have no idea what first-degree trauma or second-degree trauma does or how it impacts us in terms of diseases—but I have to believe there’s a connection. Taking in these stories for years and listening, combined with emotional trauma, definitely had an impact on me getting sick. When I went to the Congo at the invitation of Dr. Denis Mukwege [renowned surgeon who’s risked assassination for his tireless support for and medical work with Congolese women] seven years ago and I began to hear those stories, there’s no doubt that they impacted me. I stopped sleeping after I went to the Congo. The fact that there was a place where it was so evident, where this corporate greed for minerals, this incredible sexism and violence and history of colonialism had all merged and was being enacted in this war on, well the murdering of millions of people, but on the bodies of women, just became something that was so difficult to process and contain. To hear the atrocities that were going on there definitely shattered me. It is  also interesting that it [the cancer] was in my uterus, and Dr. Mukwege, when he heard [of] the operation I had, said it was strange because it was similar to operations that women have in the Congo who have been through fistulas and other things that are the result of sexual violence.

Did you find writing the book to be therapeutic for you? I imagine it was emotionally grueling to face many of these issues that you’ve described as running from for years…

The book in a weird way wrote me, it feels like it came straight from my body, and I never had a writing experience like that where every day I just had to show up for this thing that was coming. Then, of course, there was a lot of editing once that first go happened.

In addition to your book tour right now, you have your fingers in a million different projects and campaigns.

We did One Billion Rising last year, where a billion women rose and danced across the planet to end violence against women, and we’re announcing another even bigger campaign that’s going to be the follow-up. I’m working on a new play, but really what I’m going to do is take a break! It’s been a very profound tour and very emotional, but also I’m tired, so I want to be quiet and recover and just get my body in good shape. Next year, I’m very excited about this new campaign, and we’ve been working on a documentary on the Congo for four years that we hope we’ll have completed to enter into the Sundance competition.

City of Joy is just incredible. The girls are just miraculous. They come with all kinds of wounds: bullet wounds, missing body parts, horrible nightmares, children who they’ve left home for six months so they can come, repair and learn to love children who are the product of rape. When the girls leave, they are so strong, so beautiful, so healed and so ready to go back and become leaders in their communities. We just bought a huge farm called V-World Farm, which is the size of Central Park, and will become a cooperative for the women. We have tilapia farms and pig farming, and they’re already producing the beans that are feeding the women at City of Joy. I am so excited about what’s going to happen on that land. The model of City of Joy was turning pain into power, but now it’s turning pain into power and planting!

What campaigns or issues do you hope the younger generation of women organizers will focus on?

Obviously I really hope the younger generation is focusing on rape culture and how we’re going to transform that mentality that seems to be existing everywhere right now. Hopefully the younger generation will be looking at fracking and tar sands and how we’re going to stop the dangerous practices that are happening towards the environment, and just looking at the incredible economic injustice and disparities that is happening throughout the world.

Obviously my thing is focusing on ending violence against women and girls and being part of V-Day. This year we’re releasing I Am An Emotional Creature, and it’s going to be part of V-Day activities so high schoolers and college students can perform it, and I hope that will bring a lot of teenage girls and young women in their early 20s into the movement.

Above: Eve Ensler’s TED Talk “Embrace Your Inner Girl,” which includes an excerpt from I Am An Emotional Creature.

What do you see as new challenges that younger generations must now face that didn’t exist previously, or now appear to be emerging? In the same vein, what do you identify as some of the most significant points of opportunity for women in my generation?

I always find our progression so interesting with women: It’s always two-steps forward and one-step back. I feel we have made enormous progress in many ways, and, at the same time we’re still in the middle of this mad violence against women, we still don’t have women in elected and powerful positions that we want to have, we still see women being shortchanged in pay, and jobs and services that women do still being undervalued and under-cherished.

I think what this generation has the potential to do is—and I hope it happens—is get their whole bodies through this window we have halfway open so that it never closes again. … So we don’t always have to be at Groundhog Day, where we’re fighting for abortion rights how many years later, when we already had those fights and just keep getting pushed back! I think what this generation needs to do is to push through the window all the way so there’s not any potential of us ever getting pushed back again.

It’s happening. I just traveled around this entire country and am so impressed by how many young women are involved, for example, in V-Day and the movement to end violence against women; how many women and young girls I’ve seen everywhere standing up and speaking out on issues ranging from ending the death penalty or shutting down Guantanamo or fighting against drones. Young women are active in so much that’s happening. I think we’re also seeing many more young men coming into this movement to end violence against women and girls, which is very helpful right now.

You have dozens of written and performing arts works that have inspired another generation of women leaders— who are the leaders and writings and works of art that inspired your work?

I grew up in the ’70s, so it was the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Robin Morgan and all kinds of women who inspired my thinking. Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Virginia Wolfe.

Female rockstars also had such a profound influence on me, from Tina Turner to Grace Slick. Those women made me believe that we could do anything. Just watching them move, watching them inhabit space, watching them be feisty and brave and sexual and outrageous and having agency over that, totally made me believe that it was possible to create work that inspired social change, work that was pushing the edge and work that would open up doors for a different way of thinking and being.

For more on Eve Ensler’s new book, In the Body of the World, check out Ms. magazine’s Spring 2013 edition. For more information on the Congo conflict and the Congolese women “leaders and revolutionaries who are going to take back their country,” see City of Joy’s website.

Photo of Eve Ensler by Lindsay Aikman/Michael Priest Photography, from Flickr user WeNews under license from Creative Commons 2.0

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Anna Therese Day is an independent journalist specializing in Middle East politics. With extended time in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories, she has covered the 2011 Libyan War, unrest in Bahrain, the Gaza Strip after Operation Cast Lead, post-election violence in Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generally, and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Her work focuses on American foreign policy in the region, women's issues, and regional youth movements. She has been featured in a variety of media outlets, including CNN International, the BBC, Al Jazeera English, The Huffington Post, and numerous blogs.