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Eve Ensler on International Women’s Day & Her New One-Woman Play “In the Body of the World”

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On International Women’s Day, we speak with Eve Ensler, award-winning playwright and author of “The Vagina Monologues.” Ensler’s new play, “In the Body of the World,” is an exploration of the female body—how to talk about it, how to protect it, how to value it. She shares her deeply intimate and painful relationship with her own body and how it has changed throughout her life, from being raped to struggling with anorexia, from battling uterine cancer to reclaiming her body when dancing with women from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the City of Joy, a revolutionary community for women survivors of gender violence in Bukavu, which she helped establish.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our coverage of International Women’s Day, turning now to the world-renowned playwright, activist Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues. Twenty years ago, in 1998, she launched V-Day, an international movement to stop violence against women and girls. Last month, V-Day events were held across the globe on V-Day, Valentine’s Day. Eve Ensler has also returned to the stage with a one-woman play called In the Body of the World.

EVE ENSLER: I’m sitting in a wide, open field in Panzi at City of Joy in Bukavu. It’s right after one of those mad Congolese downpours, and the earth is green and moist. The sun is just beginning to come out. The women are there, and they are strong. I have made a promise.

AMY GOODMAN: In the Body of the World is based on Eve Ensler’s memoir by the same name. It’s an exploration of the female body—how to talk about it, how to protect it, how to value it. She shares her deeply intimate, painful relationship with her own body and how it’s changed throughout her life, from being raped to struggling with anorexia, from battling uterine cancer to reclaiming her body when dancing with women from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the City of Joy, which she helped establish.

Eve Ensler, welcome back to Democracy Now!

EVE ENSLER: Thank you. Good morning. Happy International Women’s Day.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, back at you. And I appreciate you coming in today, especially with this very rigorous schedule you have of one and two plays a day, In the Body of the World. It is a true masterpiece, this play.

EVE ENSLER: Thank you so much. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This 80-minute, no-interruption, no-intermission play, where you take us on a journey from the land of the healthy to the land of the sick, your own personal journey dealing with cancer and then coming back and recovering in this world of the sick, but also how you and so many people are trying to make it healthy.

EVE ENSLER: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. I think one of the things I’ve been realizing, as I do the play in New York, which has been a really very profound experience, first of all, how traumatized everyone is right now. You know, I can—every night in the audience, I can feel the level of trauma in this period of Trump, trauma in this period of racism, trauma in this period—I mean, we can just go down the list. But I think what’s also really, really been moving to me is people’s understanding of the connection between what’s happening to our bodies and what’s happening to the Earth and what’s happening to women and what’s happening to immigrants and what’s happening to refugees, and how all of this is one story, you know, often enacted on the bodies, particularly of women, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what does this International Women’s Day mean to you?

EVE ENSLER: Oh, it’s such an incredible day. I mean, I was listening to the show earlier, but I was thinking today really means, to me—in the play, there’s a character named Cindy who, when I was very sick and I had just gotten my takedown operation where I got rid of my bag, this woman came to help me learn how to fart, right? And she was a volunteer. And I was so moved by this woman, who literally was getting up every day to come and help people in this hospital, that I started to think about all the Cindys in this world, the women workers in this world, who are often underpaid, unpaid, invisible, quiet, yet they do the major work of the world, whether it’s healing the world or maintaining the world or serving the world or keeping the world alive. So I think this Women’s Day means, to me, the incredible teachers striking in West Virginia, who are now spreading to Oklahoma; the farmworkers, the Immokalee, the CIW, who are standing up against Wendy’s and starting a fast in New York—

AMY GOODMAN: The Immokalee workers.

EVE ENSLER: Immokalee workers, who are fasting on March 11 to the 15th to protest Wendy’s. I’m thinking of all the women who have rose, for example, on One Billion Rising—the domestic workers in Hong Kong and throughout the United dates, the factory workers in Bangladesh. And I feel this day is really about the 99 percent, as she was saying earlier, but also about how we honor women and the work that women do, how we elevate and respect it and value it, because I think so often the women who are doing the work that holds the world together are invisible, unseen, unacknowledged and unpaid for the work they’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to another clip from your play, In the Body of the World, where you talk about being diagnosed with cancer for the first time.

EVE ENSLER: So, how did I get it? Was it tofu? I ate lot of [bleep] tofu. Was it failing at marriage, twice? Was it worrying every single day for 56 years that I wasn’t good enough? Was it talking too much about vaginas? Was it lawn pesticides? Chernobyl? It traveled far. Was it my father dying slowly and never bothering to say goodbye? Was it bad reviews? Good reviews? Was it being reviewed? Was it sleeping with men who are married? Was it my good friend sleeping with my husband? Was it Tab? Oh, my god, I drank so much Tab when I first got sober. Was it Shirley Temples? Do you remember those Red Dye No. 2 cherries on top of the pretend cocktail, ordered for me by the handsome, charming, sophisticated, alcoholic country club father? Was it drinking water from plastic bottles? Not being breast-fed? Canned chop suey? TV dinners? Turquoise popsicles? Was it that I didn’t cry enough? Or cried too much? Was it too many boundaries? Not enough walls? Did I get this from my family? Was it already decided? Honestly, I waited too long. I have not been a good steward to my body.

AMY GOODMAN: Eve Ensler, In the Body of the World, a play that she is performing, a one-woman show here in New York, until March 25th, right? Until March 25th. So, what was it? What do you think? Take us through that journey.

EVE ENSLER: I think it’s all of the above, you know. I think when you get diagnosed with cancer, your first thought is, “How did I get it? What did I do? What’s my connection?” And I think the answer is: Who knows? I mean, I do think, for myself, that I know there is a deep connection between trauma and illness, and trauma and cancer. And I wouldn’t be surprised if in 20 years we’re calling cancer trauma. I think what happens when you’re traumatized is not only do you leave your body and disassociate from your body, but you stop paying attention to your body. And your immune system is weakened because of that. And as your immune system is weakened, and because you’re not treating your body as a body but often as a machine, as something that’s kind of powering—you’re powering through to get you to the next place, as your immune system drops, all kinds of things can begin to happen. And cancer cells are really insidious. They appear to be one of your cells, and then they move in, and then they occupy.

So I think we have to look at trauma and all the ways trauma manifests, whether it’s racism, whether it’s sexism, whether it’s poverty, whether it’s direct violence, whether it’s harassment, whether it’s simply not being honored for the work you do. There are all forms of trauma, particularly in capitalism and neoliberalism, which is constantly demeaning people, disposing of people and degrading people. So how do we change that and begin to see people and hold people and respect people and embrace people and turn that around?

AMY GOODMAN: And you certainly experienced this firsthand as you went through the medical system. I just want to go back to one more clip from In the Body of the World.

EVE ENSLER: I have not seen Dr. Sean since the chemo. The cancer has been gone almost a year. And as he was one of the male surgeons who saved my life, I am sure he’s going to want to share in the glory. I resort to stupid overenthusiasm, and I say some dumb, impulsive things. I feel great. I do. I can tell it’s gone. My CA 125 was a 4. Then I evoke my doctors in New York. They are talking about a possible cure. And he says, “Oh, Eve, it is way too early to be thinking about a cure. If it comes back, it will come back in your vagina. Have you considered radiation? We can radiate your vagina.” “Radiate my vagina. Radiate my vagina. Do you have any idea who I am? Do you have any [bleep] sense of irony?”

AMY GOODMAN: Eve Ensler, in the one-woman play, In the Body of the World. I’m not sure where to go from that. So, you go from the Mayo Clinic to Sloan Kettering to NYU, New York University.

EVE ENSLER: No, to Beth Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: To Beth Israel, sorry.

EVE ENSLER: Yes. It was really interesting. I mean, the Mayo Clinic is such an amazing place, and it’s probably the closest we have to any kind of socialist medicine. I mean, most of the doctors there have capped their salaries, so they actually work collectively as a team for you. They’re not competing with each other. But then I got to Sloan Kettering, which was a nightmare experience, where I not only didn’t feel seen or looked at, literally, but I was treated really terribly. And I eventually went to Beth Israel, where the care was quite wonderful.

But I will say, one of the things you come to realize when you’re sick is that the care of nurses, for example, is the thing that pretty much keeps you alive. I mean, the doctors do their big work, and then they disappear, and we’re grateful for the work they do. But nurses are there every single minute, every single day, tending to the details, tending to the pain, tending to your annoyingness, tending to everything. And I have to say, it kind of changed my—I worship and I bow down to nurses today. I understand how fundamental they are.

And it is also really funny, when I was thinking about like the journey of vagina, I was just thinking about how, when at a certain point somebody told me they were going to radiate my vagina, there was just a no. There was just, “No, you’re not going to radiate my vagina. That’s not going to happen.” And I’m glad I made that decision, because I think sometimes when we’re going through medical processes, people tell us certain things are going to happen or offer them, and I think if we listen sometimes to our instincts, sometimes we need to be talked out of our instincts, but sometimes we know not to do things, or we know not to go to this hospital, or we know not to do this. Sometimes we’re really right about those things.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many years has it been from your diagnosis?

EVE ENSLER: It’s been eight years.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, in the midst of this, you were very involved with the building of the City of Joy in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And I was wondering if you can describe your own personal experience of illness and then dealing with these women who so deeply inspired you, who had been raped by militias, by soldiers in Congo, and how you put these two together.

EVE ENSLER: Well, I had been invited to the Democratic Republic of Congo maybe nine years ago by Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist who’s an extraordinary man, who was literally—

AMY GOODMAN: He’s been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

EVE ENSLER: Like four times. Like four times. And he had invited me there, after I had interviewed him in New York, to support and to see if I could somehow both offer suggestions of how to get their story out, but also to see what we could do together with V-Day. And I think when I went to the Congo, the stories—you know, I have been in many war zones, and I’ve heard many stories of horrible rape and systematic, you know, rape used as a tactic of war. But the Congo was something else. It was kind of this mergence of colonialism, racism, sexism and morbid capitalism kind of merged together and, you know, on the—being really enacted on the bodies of women, you know, through the fight for economic pillaging of minerals.

And I think when we started to build, and Christine Schuler Deschryver and I, Mama C and I, and Dr. Mukwege, we spent months really talking to women there about what they wanted. And it really came from their vision of having a place called City of Joy, which could be a sanctuary for healing and a revolutionary center where they could turn their trauma and pain to power. And I think as we were building that, and as we were trying to figure out raising funds for it and just defining what the project was and working with the women—and we were deeply in the center of the kind of mess of it, because building in a war zone where there’s no roads, where there’s no electricity, where there’s corrupt building managers, it was pretty insane—it was at that exact moment that I got diagnosed with stage IV cancer. And so, I somehow was going to be dying now in the middle of this huge thing that we had begun, and they were in crisis building this place.

But I think it was this really amazing thing that began to happen. I had made a commitment to the women of Congo, and I was not going to die before that commitment was fulfilled. And they had kind of made this commitment to themselves that they would build this place. So, I often attribute the women of Congo as saving my life, because it was really fighting for that project and really being in solidarity with them and thinking of all they had suffered and all the ways that their bodies have been desecrated by rape, whether it’s fistulas, where they have holes where they’ll leak for the rest of their lives, or whether it’s this most severe trauma or whether it’s fragments of bullets in their skulls. I couldn’t even complain about what was going on with me, because I had been witness to and I had been in knowledge of what had been happening with women in Congo for so many years.

And it was really amazing that as I finally was in the last stages of my recovery and in chemo—I was bald, and I was not looking well. I was 30 pounds lighter than now. I got back there, and the women just looked to me, and they were like, “Oh, my god, you are a freak.” And they were so loving. All they—what they did is they just started to dance. And they really danced. And that was the moment where I really thought of One Billion Rising, because I looked at these amazing women, who have been through the worst atrocities on the planet, whose bodies, in many cases, have been—organs had been removed, rearranged, due to the horrible rapes. And they were dancing with every strength and intensity of their being. And I thought, “My god, if the women of Congo can dance like this, what if the entire world rose up and danced?”

AMY GOODMAN: You know, as you were performing on V-Day, on February 14th, and this—all of your friends and family were at the theater, at City Center, your dear international family and friends were here at Democracy Now! And we talked to Christine Schuler Deschryver, who is the head of the City of Joy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, about the conflict in DRC.

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: The problem is really complicated, because it’s an economic war, you know, for coltan. That’s something we have in our cellphones and in our computer. And I think like all the countries, you know, like in all the Western countries, they don’t want this war to end, because they want—they want a mess, so they can continue to plunder, to plunder Congo. And rape was and is still using as a—as terror. If you look at a map and you see where rape are committed, it’s all around mines. And we still have lots of guns everywhere and militias. So, the goal is for people to leave, you know, their villages, so they can—multinationals can continue to plunder Congo.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Christine Schuler Deschryver describing what’s happening in Joseph Kabila’s DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo. She is the head of the City of Joy. And place that for us, as we begin to end the show.

EVE ENSLER: Yes. I mean, she is the head of V-Day, and she’s the head of City of Joy. And things are very, very, very dangerous right now in the Congo, because Kabila is not leaving. He is now killing off many dissenters. They’re verging on some kind of civil war again, because he will not have an election, and there are many people who do not want him there anymore because he’s so corrupt, and he’s—I mean, the country should be—is the most plentiful of resources of any country in Africa, and people are starving all around. And that is all about policies, and it’s all about selling off the Congo to people outside the Congo.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet you have this city that is run by women.

EVE ENSLER: Indeed, right in the middle of Bukavu. And, you know, it’s amazing. We’ve now graduated 1,038 women, who have returned to their communities as leaders. They are transforming their communities in so many different ways. And what’s beautiful to see is that even the environment that’s around City of Joy, that was once a very poor—it’s still a poor environment. It’s actually a tent city, where former soldiers’ wives are living. That’s been changed, because what’s—the energy of City of Joy is beginning to spread out throughout the community and lift people’s spirits and take people in and make people aware that they do have power and that women can change their destinies. And it’s incredible to see the women rising up—I mean, their rising is this Saturday, but to see women rising up and taking back their rights, becoming people who can do agriculture and fight for their rights, in terms of self-defense, and fight for leadership. And women are becoming leaders in the Congo. And I think we’re going to see very big change in the next few years.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Eve Ensler, I want to thank you for joining us on International Working Women’s Day, as you go off to work at the theater tonight. We’re going to do Part 2 of our discussion, and we’re going to post it online at democracynow.org. Eve Ensler, award-winning playwright, author of The Vagina Monologues. She has a new play, In the Body of the World, ’til March 25th at City Center, Manhattan Theatre Club.

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Up Next

V-Day: Poet Aja Monet & V (Eve Ensler) on the Movement to End Violence Against Women & Girls

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