Playwright-author Eve Ensler

Award-winning playwright and activist discusses her cancer battle and explains why working with the women of Democratic Republic of Congo to create the “City of Joy” saved her life.

An internationally acclaimed playwright and author, Eve Ensler's works include the groundbreaking production, The Vagina Monologues—which has been performed in more than 140 countries—her solo show The Good Body and the best-selling book I Am an Emotional Creature. She's also a passionate advocate for the rights of women and girls. Ensler is founder and artistic director of the global movement V-Day. Despite her battle with uterine cancer, she recently opened the City of Joy educational community in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Eve Ensler back to this program. The iconic playwright, author and activist is out in paperback now with her latest text. It’s called “I Am an Emotional Creature.” She is also a vocal advocate for the women of the Congo. In February she opened a new center for women and young girls in the Congo. It’s called City of Joy. It is a remarkable project, and Eve, I was just saying to you before we came on the air here how pleased I am to have you back, but more pleased that you are staying committed to the women of the Congo.
Eve Ensler: I am.
Tavis: This is your issue.
Ensler: It is.
Tavis: Yeah.
Ensler: I think what’s going on with women of Congo is kind of central to everything in the world – A, Congo’s the heart of Africa, Africa is the heart of the world. Women are the heart of the heart. So if the heart isn’t functioning, the rest of the world’s not going to function.
I think everything about the Congo represents the history of colonialism, racism, slavery, oppression, capitalism, sexism – it’s all kind of merged in one cauldron. I think if we can change things and support the women to change, then it will happen everywhere. It’s kind of the worst situation, but if you can turn it around there, then it will spread and it will impact – it’s sort of like the situation from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya. I think it’s the same kind of wave that could happen with women that will then – and obviously men joining in, but with women as the leaders.
Tavis: It’s a great comparative example; that is to say, what’s happening, what can happen in Congo, what’s happening in the Middle East as we speak, great comparative example, and yet I wonder how it is that you get traction on that issue with Americans, given all the angst that we feel in this country, all that women are enduring in this particular country right now. They’re being hit hard by the recession.
You know the story; Congress after reproductive rights, et cetera, et cetera. How do you get traction on an issue halfway around the world when women here feel like they are under attack, that there’s a war on women in this country?
Ensler: Well, I think – this is just my own personal experience – when things are really ad for me, if I reach out to someone who’s worse off, I get better. I just spent a year surviving cancer, and all the way through it the women of Congo were on my mind, in my heart, I spoke to them every day, even the day after my operation.
Their struggle saved my life. Being in the struggle with them saved my life, because no matter what I was going through, I knew it was much worse off in the Congo, much worse. I think in a way, if you can reach out to your sisters who are far away, there’s nothing – I’m not just saying – you know, suffering is suffering, but somehow, if you can reach out of your own suffering and help somebody else, it changes your own suffering.
I agree; there’s a war on women in this country. There’s a war on women everywhere. There’s a war on people at this point in civilization. But I know every single time, and we have incredible support for the women of Congo. Do you know in two years the V-Day activists across the planet raised a half a million dollars for the women of Congo, and that’s $10 donation from Alabama and $10 from Manila and $15.
Women and men, individual activists, did that. So my experience is that people really do care about the women of Congo, because they understand that if you allow anyone on the planet to be treated the way the women of Congo are being treated, it will eventually impact all of us, that you can’t separate it.
Tavis: When you were last here you were leaving to catch a plane back to Congo, so I knew you were headed to Congo. I did not know between then and now, my seeing you, that you would be battling cancer.
Ensler: I didn’t, either.
Tavis: Who knows the twists and turns that life takes. Give me your reflections on this battle.
Ensler: I was diagnosed last March 23rd and I was on my way to Haiti, because we have two big projects in Congo and Haiti and I couldn’t go. I know it sounds like a very strange thing to say, everything about the experience was grueling and painful and scary, but it was transformative. It was transformative.
I think for me, I had never been a sick person. I think each of us has a mandala inside of us, or a clock, and from 12:00 to 3:00 we’ve got compassion for people who – if we’re a woman, we have compassion for women. If we’re a person of color, we have compassion.
Then from 3:00 to 6:00 we might have compassion for somebody who’s lost their mother, because we lost our mother. But then from 6:00 to 12:00 we don’t have any more compassion. What happened from me getting sick is like it just opened up the whole clock, and it’s amazing that I had spent so much time with the women of Congo, whose bodies had been eviscerated by rape and who’d lost their organs, their uteruses, all their private parts have been just completely undone by being serial raped.
And there I was, losing all the same things. It was this incredible moment of solidarity. When I was back in November after just coming out of chemo and just having a final surgery, I was in such connection with the women. I thought, all right, for whatever reason, this has opened my heart, this has opened my body, this has opened my being in a deeper way to the suffering of the world, and it’s made me completely connected now.
Like, I don’t feel like there’s an “us” and “them” anymore. It’s just there’s the world, and each one of us is connected to the suffering of everybody. I think the fact that we have passports and we line it up so that there’s people who matter and people who don’t and people who we should care about – it’s all a big story. It’s a big story.
Each person suffering is intrinsic – and each person’s struggle is our struggle. If we don’t understand that yet, we are lost.
Tavis: I wouldn’t go there but for the fact that you raised it, because I would not dare be so personal with a woman, but since you mentioned that you found yourself lying in a bed in a hospital losing the same body parts that these women have lost, you obviously write about this in this poem I want to talk about in a second, but the way that you were losing it, the conditions under which you were losing it, and the conditions under which they were losing it are two very different things.
Ensler: Very different.
Tavis: Tell me, one – it’s a two-part question. Talk to me about the irony that you referenced earlier of losing the same body parts with these women that you dedicated your life to, your whole being, your whole body, to, number one; but what it said to you about the way that they were impacted by it and the way that you were impacted by it. Does that make sense?
Ensler: Absolutely. First of all, I could afford to go and get an operation. First of all, I had the privilege of having chemotherapy. There’s no chemotherapy in the Congo. People don’t even use the word “cancer,” because when they get it, they die. There’s no CAT scan machine in Bukavu. In all of Bukavu. You have to search all of Congo to find a CAT scan machine.
So we’re talking about women who, had they had the operation I had, they wouldn’t have ever been able to have any of the things that I was given to support them. They would have either just died or they would have been exiled or they would have been sent out, or they would never have been – and in most cases they probably wouldn’t even have been treated.
So I look at the privilege of having insurance. We’re talking about this country, too – how many people in this country just die because they can’t afford operations? It’s insanity. We’re living in a country where we don’t understand that healthcare is a right. That’s across the planet.
If I look at the Congo, where the majority of people are hard-pressed in Eastern Congo to find something to eat on any given day, then we’re talking about the conditions in which they live. Today I just got a call, there’s a particular road that runs through Bukavu, if you can call it a road. It’s the concept of a road. In a town that used to have 50,000 people there’s now a million, because they’ve all fled there from various wars.
So there’s a million people on a road, and all day long hundreds and thousands of people just walk on this road, searching for a banana, carrying 200 pounds on their back, trying to find a way to make ends meet in some way.
Today, one of the trucks, because the lorries have no brakes, just lost control and just killed six children on the road. That’s a daily happening in Eastern Congo, where life is extinguished like that because of the lack of value that we and the world have for people.
Tavis: The question that I’m always wrestling with for people who do the kind of work that you do day-in and day-out is how it is that you remain hopeful. What I mean to get to in that is that when you are exposed to this much evil in the world, what is that thing that makes the difference between getting depressed and wanting to just kill yourself because the world is just horrible and I don’t want to be here anymore and these problems are so intractable that I can’t do anything about them, what’s the difference between wanting to do what you’re doing versus just saying (makes noise) forget it, I’m done, I’m out.
Ensler: It’s such a good question. It’s such a good question. I’ll tell you a great story, and this is an example of what keeps me going. We opened City of Joy, it’s this amazing place. It was just like pushing boulders up an ice mountain, it was impossible – building in a warzone where there’s no infrastructure, where there’s no electricity, where there’s no (unintelligible) there.
But we did it, we raised a village. As we started, we hired a group of women construction workers for the first time in Congolese history. The contractor didn’t know what we were doing and the women didn’t know what we were doing. They’re like, build a – yeah, you can build a building. Learn how to build a building.
These women started, they were so down on themselves, they’re all survivors, they have no self-esteem, they have no money, but you know what? They started to build City of Joy and every day they would sing and build and sing and build.
When I went there in November, they just came dancing with buckets of cement on head, just dancing and singing, and I was like, oh, let me try the bucket, and of course I fell on the ground, it was so heavy, right? (Laughter)
But meanwhile, they built the City of Joy and their spirit and their dancing and their singing is in the walls of City of Joy, and when we opened, 3,000 Congolese showed up and the women were dancing with bricks on their head. Last week, they did an interview for Radio Okapi and they said, “We are the first graduates of City of Joy. We went from victims to survivors to leaders, and now we’re leaders and we’re going to lead our country.”
They just started a collective. We gave them a $20,000 grant and now they’re going to be builders and yarders. Now, that gives me hope. That is change. That is palpable change. That is women who went from feeling they had no right to exist on the Earth to being leaders and people making money and people having a presence and value in the world.
Focus somewhere – I decided to focus on the women of Congo because they have taken my heart. They have my spirit. I’m there. I don’t know why, but that’s where I’m – if you just make a decision to focus somewhere and change that something, everything gets better.
Tavis: I think City of Joy is why, that’s the answer to the why question. That’s why you’re doing it.
Let me close this conversation by going back to your cancer survival. I read this poem that you wrote that just blew me away, “The Gift of Cancer.” I’ve talked to so many folks over the years who have battled this disease. I’ve lost friends; my executive producer on my radio show, a Black, 42-year-old woman who died of cancer just a year or so ago, so I know this story all too well, unfortunately.
Yet I was struck by your use of the phrase “The Gift of Cancer.” Not everybody sees cancer the way you do, as a gift. You do. Tell me about why you wrote that poem.
Ensler: I think for me, the world is completely insecure and has always been insecure. I never had expectations that it will be secure. I just had expectations I would survive. (Laughter) I think for me what cancer did, and I really don’t even understand it, is it just burned off what didn’t belong here.
But I suddenly realized we’re living in a world of cancer, aren’t we? It’s completely carcinogenic. It’s here, and we treat it like we can’t talk about it. It’s just another one of those taboos, like no one’s going to get it although everybody has it, you know what I mean?
I suddenly realized, no, no, no, actually, it’s here, it’s horrible, but we’ve got to make sure everybody gets provided healthcare and access to transform it, and we’ve got to see it as a tool of our own transformation so it wakes us up to other people. It wakes us up.
When I sat in the chemo infusion suite, I just felt in such solidarity with every person in that suite who had chemo going into their body. It was like, all right, I’m in a new landscape, but I’m in the landscape of love, because we’re all in this struggle together.
I think anything that breaks down your wall of separateness, right – here is a disease that has pathologically dividing cells and it is the thing that brought me into unity. I think it’s opposites that often bring us into the greatest transformation, when you’re dividing, you’re dividing in the greatest way, and then suddenly no, actually, you’re in more unity than you’ve ever been before.
Tavis: For those who did not get the book when it came out in hardback, as I mentioned at the top of the show, “I Am an Emotional Creature,” the top line on the book?
Ensler: I’m very excited about it. We’re going to start the commercial production of it in South Africa. We’re going to open it in Joburg at the Market Theater and then we’re going to go to Paris and then we’re going to come to this country. My dream is that it will be the second phase of V-Day for V-Girls, and it will be the next part of the revolution.
I tell you if teenage girls wake up, if teenage girls take it back, this whole world will change overnight because they have more energy, they have more brilliance, they have more gut-filled, open-hearted wisdom.
I feel like if we look at the oppression of girls on the planet, how commodified they are, how sold they are, how beaten down they are, how cut they are, how tamed and muted and lamed and undone, if we reverse that it’s like giving back another natural resource.
Tavis: I always celebrate and revel in Eve’s humanity. It’s hard to find anybody who has more courage, more conviction and more commitment and more character connected to things that they care about than Eve Ensler. Her book, now out in paperback, is called “I Am an Emotional Creature.” Aren’t we all?
Ensler: You are.
Tavis: I am an emotional creature, I confess. Eve, good to have you on, and all the best to you.
Ensler: Thank you.
Tavis: I’m glad you’re here.
Ensler: Me, too.
Tavis: I mean that any way you want to take it – I’m glad you are here.
Ensler: Thank you, thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm