Amber Nicole Brooks on Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World

Our dynamic nonfiction editor Amber Nicole Brooks prepares readers for our forthcoming Skin issue with a tribute to one woman who started an important conversation on the topic, Eve Ensler, via Ensler’s new book, In the Body of the World:

Author of The Vagina Monologues and one of Newsweek‘s 150 Women Who Changed the World, Eve Ensler has given the world an arresting memoir of wondrous breadth, In the Body of the World (Metropolitan Books, 2013). Ensler’s voice is vulnerable, fierce, and acutely aware. A list titled “Scans” divides the book into fifty-three sections, including “Somnolence,” “Falling or Congo Stigmata,” “The Stoma,” “Crowd Chemo,” “Riding the Lion,” “Shit,” and “Joy.” The scans, metaphors, and variants of pain at first seem to create a fractured vision. However, as the narrative accumulates layers, and in a way heals itself, its preoccupations, Ensler indeed makes the vision whole.

Through her experiences of working with women in the Congo and giving her body over to the treatment of uterine cancer, she makes unexpected connections and graceful, if agonizing, comparison:

There are no accidents. Or maybe everything is an accident. My friend Paul says to me, “It’s like you have Congo Stigmata.” Well, actually, almost everyone said it in one way or another. “It doesn’t surprise me, Eve, of course. All those stories of rape over all these years. The women have entered you.” And at first I pushed this away because it’s not really a great advertisement for activism. Come care about others, listen to their stories and their pain, and you can contract it too. Then immediately after the surgery, the doctors told me that they had discovered something inside me that they had rarely seen before. Cells of endometrial (uterine) cancer had created a tumor between the vagina and the bowel and had “fistulated” the rectum. Essentially, the cancer had done exactly what rape had done to so many thousands of women in the Congo. I ended up having the same surgery as many of them.

The prose is graphic and unabashed at times, as Ensler does not shield us from the grim realities of the world, of bodies, of wounds. However, “In the Body of the World” is not “about” the trauma of incest, cancer, war, and systematic rape. It is about self, separations and connections within and of the self: self-other, self-body, self-pain, self-world. Ensler views the Congo, a site of great trauma, as a wound of the world. She loves the women, doesn’t forget, and gives everything: “Love is something else, something rising and contagious and surprising. It isn’t aware of itself. It isn’t keeping track. It isn’t something you sign for. It’s endless and generous and enveloping. It’s in the drums, in the voices, in the bodies of the wounded made suddenly whole, by the music, by each other, dancing.” Ensler had not understood love as a child, “I knew nothing of love that was not based on conditions,” but with the women of the Congo there is not only love, but also joy, willingness, and action.

Reading this book is at once chilling and heartening. This book is not about illness, nor violence. Simply, this book is about everything. Ensler’s brave analysis gives the world a voice unlike any other, a necessary curative vision.

 

Begin your subscription with our double issue on Skin, to be released in December.