The American project is a worthy project for equality, justice, and freedom, says the author of The Vagina Monologues.
San Francisco is a city obsessed with celebration. We have festivals for whiskey and beer, tall ships and indie films, poetry, hip-hop, bluegrass, and tofu. If you can sip it, eat it, blast it, or put it on a T-shirt, we can make it into a party.
Leave it to our no-nonsense neighbor Berkeley to have a two-day festival dedicated to thinking. During next month’s fourth annual Festival of Ideas (October 14-15), an eclectic array of activists, writers, speakers, and thinkers will participate in on-stage discussions on topics including race, technology, food, and politics. Among them will be playwright, performer, author, and vagina-lover Eve Ensler, who will be speaking in conversation with Kevin Powell.
We caught up with Ensler prior to her festival duties and got an earful on her career, her body, and her opinions of Donald Trump.
Have you always been an activist as well as an artist?
I don’t really separate the two. I think all work, whether it claims to be or not, is political work. When I wrote The Vagina Monologues, it was out of pure curiosity about what women thought about their vaginas. I didn’t plan for it to launch a movement.
It’s been 20 years since The Vagina Monologues, what has it been like to watch the trajectory of that project?
It’s been incredible. There’s a part of me, despite myself, that would like [it] to become irrelevant, but I’m also thrilled that the play is continuing to serve women, ignite dialogue, and allow for people to tell their own stories. I’ve been invited into places I could never have imagined to stand up for women and be in solidarity with them.
How has the success of The Vagina Monologues affected you?
It changed my whole life. I’d been writing for many, many years before, and my work had always been perceived as radical or political. After The Vagina Monologues, I had opportunities — theaters and producers and people were willing to publish my work, which gave me more confidence and support as an artist. It is essential that those of us who are in a position to provide resources, support younger women artists, particularly marginalized women.
In the past 20 years do you think the world has changed for women?
In many ways the world has changed and in many ways it hasn’t. We’re seeing advances on a lot of different levels, but do I think patriarchy has been undone? Absolutely not. Do I think we have insane and horrific levels of violence every single place in the world? Absolutely. As women come forward and assert their right to be here, the backlash is extreme.
What themes do you find you come back to in your work?
Women’s bodies. So much of what happens to us happens to our bodies. If it’s true that one in three women has been battered or raped, that means many women have at some point left their bodies because [it] was too dangerous or painful. How women come back into their bodies has been a really big theme in my work. I believe that when women are embodied, we’re connected to a much bigger life force. We’re connected to the earth, to our imaginations, our sexuality, our vision, our brilliance, our energy. And when we’re disconnected from our bodies we’re maimed, distorted, and disabled. We are incapable of being united because those fracturings that happen inside when we’re raped or battered manifest outside as division. The more we come back into our bodies, the more capable we are of empathy and solidarity.
Do you ever feel pigeonholed as the “vagina woman”?
I don’t, and here’s why: I am so proud to have talked about vaginas and to have been part of a movement that is protecting and cherishing and uplifting vaginas. It’s so fantastic to think that women everywhere are standing up for their rights and standing up for their bodies and learning the language of their clitoris and vulvas. I also don’t feel like it’s only thing I’ve done, nor do I think it’s the only thing other people think I’ve done.
Tell me about your most recent work.
I adapted my memoir, In the Body of the World, which I performed at the American Reparatory Theater last year, and it will be coming to D.C., and New York and London in ’17-’18. I’m working on a book with a wonderful writer, thinker, and eco-philosopher named Derrick Jensen, and we’re doing a book on the culture of rape.
What do you anticipate your conversation with Kevin Powell will be like?
I’m thrilled to be in conversation with Kevin. He has been a longtime friend and comrade in the struggle for social justice and I admire him deeply, particularly because of his willingness to be a feminist and make feminism a part of his struggle in an intersectional way with racial justice. I think we both feel really strongly that you can’t talk about any issue as a separate issue. Our struggles are highly connected.
What is the most urgent message you have to share?
That Donald Trump cannot be president under any circumstances. This election will determine whether we can continue to build movements of social justice and equality. That’s what’s at stake here. The election of Donald Trump would mean the death of a future for the progressive movement. We have to come together now and not let him wreak havoc on the American project, which is a worthy project for equality, justice, and freedom; all of which are under siege right now.
How has your concept of self changed over the course of your career?
I started my life in a very violent family, where I was forced to leave my body at a very young age. I don’t know that I even saw myself as a person. Having Stage Four cancer was a huge turning point. I think that was when I finally came back into my body and it has made me feel more connected to humanity. We’re all part of a huge story, each of us playing our scene or writing our line or speaking our truth. I have enormous gratitude for this journey, which has allowed me to come back into my body and to feel that I can lead a life of service and art that is predicated on connection and cooperation rather than domination.