An in-the-body experience

Eve Ensler is best known as the playwright behind The Vagina Monologues, but the feminist icon is a prolific writer who has penned or edited almost a dozen books. On May 18, she’ll be speaking at Benaroya Hall in Seattle to promote her new memoir, In the Body of the World. The memoir covers her diagnosis and battle with uterine cancer in 2010 and her work with City of Joy, a program that empowers Congolese women to take back control of their bodies, lives and communities.

Jew-ish: Tell us about your speaking engagement. What do you plan to talk about?
Eve Ensler:
 I’m here to talk about my new book, In the Body of the World, which I’ll be reading from. The book is really a journey. For many years I’ve been trying to get back to my body after being exiled as a young girl as a result of violence. The journey is really about how the work in the Congo and being diagnosed with uterine cancer and opening the City of Joy became a catalytic series of events which really allowed me, pushed me, forced me back into my body. This is really a journey about how coming into your body is how we come into the world, and how when we’re in ourselves, we’re connected to everything. And how when we’re disassociated, we’re not.

Jew-ish: How has being Jewish influenced your work?
Eve Ensler: I’m actually a practicing Buddhist, [but] I grew up in a Jewish community. Jewish culture informed me. I think being a social activist is rooted in traditions in Judaism. I look at the history of theater and humor and telling stories and it’s definitely rooted in that tradition. I think I also [have] a real preoccupation with injustice and being an outsider. The notion of exile in general is deeply connected, not to mention genocide and all the other things I’ve been obsessed with throughout my life — violence in particular.

Jew-ish: Your work in the Congo has been very successful. Are you planning to do similar work in other countries?
Eve Ensler:
 We’re doing events now in 140 countries. We have definite projects in various countries: Kenya, Congo, Afghanistan, various places around the globe. Congo is our biggest project and it’s growing substantially every day. We’re really giving it five years to make it right, and for the women in Congo to discover what they need to discover. Then we’ll see if it is something that can be replicated. But we need to discover that.

Jew-ish: Are you seeing progress with the overall culture in the Congo?
Eve Ensler:
 We are definitely seeing progress with our women. They are just miraculous, and their transformation has been profound. We’ve graduated three classes, with 90 women in each class, to go back into their communities healed and trained with specific skills — agricultural skills, computer skills, literacy skills — who are real leaders. We’re seeing profound things beginning to happen in their communities, whether it’s the opening of cooperatives or fighting back against the government, demanding their rights, or changing things in their families. Great things are happening. Has the Congo changed? No. Eastern Congo is worse than it’s ever been, and many of the people we work with are under great security threats. We need to continue to act.

Jew-ish: So much of this memoir is about coming back into your body, which is different than taking control over it. How do you explain the difference between those two things?
Eve Ensler:
 As a result of trauma, I was very disassociated with my body. I didn’t live in it, and I didn’t feel it or cherish it or connect to it. I think what’s happened is I’ve come back into my body. It’s not so much controlling it, but inhabiting it. I feel so deeply connected to the people around me and to the earth in a way that I never felt before. I don’t feel driven in the way I was driven before. I don’t feel like I have to prove myself the way I proved myself before. I feel like before, I treated my body like a machine. It was there to serve my every demand and command, without paying attention to it and without honoring it. That has changed.

Jew-ish: If you don’t feel as driven now as you did before, what is still pushing you forward to make these changes for other women?
Eve Ensler:
 The sense that it’s what we need to do. There’s a drivenness that comes from one’s own being and sense of unworthiness and a sense of disassociation that if you just keep pushing and fighting and pushing and fighting, eventually you’ll connect to yourself. What I do now is passionately and deeply worry about the state of humanity, and what we’re doing to the earth and what we’re doing to each other. It’s not coming from that “me” place; it’s coming from a much more connected place.

Jew-ish: You’ve compared the rape of women to the rape of the earth. You’re obviously still very passionate about environmentalism.
Eve Ensler:
 There was a moment in my memoir when I had a very severe infection in my gut and I was very ill, and it was actually the moment of the BP spill in the [Gulf of Mexico]. I was watching the video of the gushing oil, and I couldn’t distinguish what was going on inside me from what was going on in the gulf. I’ve always been hugely concerned about what we’re doing to the earth, but now, it’s from a much more embodied and connected place. I don’t think we can think about fighting violence against women unless we’re fighting to honor the earth. I think it’s impossible, and I think people get it — it’s not that complicated. A lot of the motions and the verbs and the way we approach the earth is so much the same as what we do to women’s bodies — occupying it and drilling it and fracking it.

Jew-ish: What do you hope audiences take away from reading your memoir and seeing you speak?
Eve Ensler:
 They should look at this as a wake-up call. You don’t have to get catastrophic cancer to wake up. We don’t have to destroy everything so that the earth is uninhabitable for people — we can actually wake up before that. I hope this book is a way for people to return to their bodies, and to really be inside themselves so they can feel what’s happening to the people and the earth and life around them.

This piece originally appeared on Jew-ish.com.

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