Connection: In the body, in the world and in Berlin with Eve Ensler

Some people impact your perspective of the world more than you realize. For me, one of the voices that shaped my understanding of female identity in college was Eve Ensler. Her piece The Vagina Monologues demonstrated in a palpable way that it’s still a radical act for women to tell their stories in a public forum. As it did for many in my generation, the Monologues finally turned my understanding of gender equality on its head.

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Photo courtesy of Dialogue Books, Lacombe

Last week Eve Ensler came to Berlin, where she gave a talk and reading for free at Soho House, which was organized by incredible team at Dialogue Books. She read from her newest book, In the Body of the World, which really shows her artistic (and activist) progression since the Vagina Monologues. Ensler also spoke on the founding of V-Day, a day to end violence against women, which has expanded into a global movement.

Ensler explained how the Vagina Monologues started. She had written the piece “The Flood” about a seventy-year-old woman who didn’t have sex for her entire adult life after being shamed as a teen. She read the story at an open mic night, where other writers encouraged her: “you have to do this vagina thing!”. After the Monologues opened in New York, Eve experienced a veritable flood of women coming up to her and wanting to share their own stories of abuse, repression and strained relationships with their bodies. It was as if “whatever they had heard had uncorked their stories,” which they desperately needed to share.

After the Monologues ran for a year or two, it became clear to Ensler that something had to be done to “combat this epidemic” of violence against women. That’s why she started V-Day on February 14, 1998, as a day of activism to break this cycle. Since then, the initiative has grown into a global movement: active in over 167 countries, Ensler’s nonprofit has raised over 100 million dollars. This money has helped to open the first shelters for women in Egypt and Iraq, sponsor annual workshops and donate satellite-phones to women in Afghanistan. It was also instrumental in the founding of Karama, a program in the Middle East and North Africa the works to end violence against women by collaborating with local women’s organizations and other advocacy groups.

But that still doesn’t explain how she came to write her new book. As Eve sees it, the intense emotional strain of hearing story after story from women all around the world – which pinnacled in the Congo, where she met women who talked about their experiences with the rape and violence being used as a systematic weapon in the country’s ongoing civil war – impacted not only her emotional, but also her physical well-being. When she was diagnosed with uterine cancer, she had to put everything else on hold, and turn inwards.

Cancer threw me through the window of my disassociation into the center of my body’s crisis. The Congo threw me deep into the crisis of the world, and these two experiences merged as I faced the disease and what I felt like was the beginning of the end. (In the Body of the World, p. 7)

The irony is that after spending so many years standing up for the female body, until her illness Eve had felt disassociated from her own body due to the sexual abuse she experienced as a child. The process of undergoing cancer treatment, in which her body was “pricked, punctured, probed and scanned,” she became “all body.” This experience transformed how she views the world; she now connects the personal with the universal, the body with the environment, and what she terms as the global assault against women with the systematic exploitation of the Earth.

Suddenly the cancer in me was the cancer that is everywhere. The cancer of cruelty, the cancer of greed, the cancer that gets inside people who live downstream from chemical plants, the cancer inside the lungs of coal miners. The cancer from the stress of not achieving enough, the cancer of buried trauma. The cancer that lives in caged chickens and oil-drenched fish. The cancer of carelessness. (p. 7, In the Body of the World)

That’s how Eve sees the world – as interconnected, and everyone is dependent on everyone (and everything) else. Although the above passage might seem negative, it’s hard to express the strength and energy that radiates from Eve. She talked about the power of dance to heal, in particular to heal people’s traumatized relationships to their bodies. The newest incarnation of V-Day, One Billion Rising, mobilized women in 167 countries to come together and dance – not only to protest, but to demonstrate the power women truly have when they stand up for each other and themselves.

Afterword

Here are a few stray lines and thoughts that stood out to me during the evening. For instance, on chemotherapy: with the help of her therapist, Eve was able to visualize the chemo as an empathetic warrior that “burned away” the negative – in her past and in her traumas. She talked about how undergoing chemo puts you in an extremely sensitive state of being; she’s in conversation with doctors about how to leverage things like visualization in this state to help patients steer the effects of the chemo and overcome cancer. Or on setting an example: No one is telling the truth (about what has happened to them) – you have to stand up and be a leader. This creates a chain reaction and empowers others to stand up and do the same. Everyone is interconnected – those in power have a stake in maintaining this illusion of separateness, otherwise we would rebel. On that same note, “start defying authority, trust what you know to be right” – and act on that knowledge. During One Billion Rising 2013, women in Mogadishu also rose up and organized the first dance protest ever. Since then, the first rape cases have been prosecuted in the country.

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Part 2: On women writers, book marketing, VIDA & some paradigm-shiftingly-good lit. blogs

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Images from: http://zubaanbooks.com, http://twoseriousladies.com, http://emilybooks.com/, http://cherrybombbooks.com/

I promised this list some time ago. Since then, Wendy Davis successfully filibustered an anti-abortion bill in Texas, DOMA was overturned, Turkish protestors stopped the memorial construction in Gezi Park and Egypt had a second revolution. Oh yeah, and it turned out the US really is spying on the world, surprise surprise.

What actually sparked my interest in finding more platforms for women’s writing, however, were the recently released VIDA statistics (about how few women are represented in the books sections of the largest newspapers and magazines). Then there was this powerful response by Dr. Kathryn Heyman, and the comments section got me even more riled up that so many writers had been ignored by these publications – seems like the “complicated” problem would be quite easy to fix (she has posted a great update with a list of suggestions, too). And FINALLY I stumbled upon an article by Deborah Kopaken Coplan in the Nation, which confirmed a lot of my suspicions about the differences in marketing books by women – the pink covers, the changing titles to be more “feminine” (Newswhore becomes Shutterbabe, Suicide Wood becomes From Here to April) – and also exposed further demeaning treatment of authors in the media.

So I started reflecting about where I discover new writers, and which of these forums work towards tipping this gender bias in the other direction. There are tons. In fact, what would happen if VIDA were to compare their dismal results with the numbers of women contributors in online magazines and blogs, such as The Rumpus, the Hairpin, Barrelhouse, the Awl, the Nervous Breakdown, PANK, Hobart Pulp, ROAR (online content coming soon), Failbetter and many others? We would probably see that women writers fare much better in online publications.

Come to think of it, considering the wealth of online magazines and websites dedicated to every possible identity or perspective, these online platforms are the new trailblazers when it comes to diverse voices in literature. It only makes sense – the internet vastly extends the reach of independent culture, and makes radical thinking accessible for free. So why wouldn’t the internet be the new hub of indie publishing?

In the spirit of celebrating progress in these historic times, here is a list of forums for diverse perspectives. These blogs, magazine and book publishers stand out for curating women writers or LGBTQ writers whose writing is amazing, highly literary and takes lots of risks. May they go forth and multiply!

Any other suggestions of paradigm-shifting blogs and online magazines which focus on women, queer or feminist writers? Check out my blogroll at my WordPress site for more unmissable blogs.

Book cover trouble: On gendering book covers and reading between the lines (pt 1)

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In the process of researching the publishing world, from sifting through the profiles of midsized to micropresses, to wandering through bookshops and talking with book people, I stumbled upon a variety of opinions and resources that have gotten me thinking about gender equality lately.

It started with book covers. A few months ago, after a few hours of browsing in Rand McNally bookstore I realized how seldom I pick up a book by a female author I’m not already familiar with. But why? Do books written by women have such blatantly ‘girly’ covers, or does the back cover text reduce the books to stereotypical female themes so much that I quickly put down the books in favor of books which seem edgier and ultimately less female?

In May, an author who was tired of the gender stereotypes appearing on her young adult book covers did an interesting experiment. Maureen Johnson called upon her followers to “flip” the covers of favorite authors and reimagine how they would have been designed if the author had been of the opposite sex (or a different sexual orientation, etc). Huffington Post picked up the “Coverflip Challenge” story and it went viral, with thousands adding their own coverflips to Tumblr and Twitter.

Many bloggers used this opportunity to discuss the problem of gender stereotyping on book covers, in particular when it narrows the potential audience of the book. A lot of women writers and bloggers said they were also turned off by overly feminine covers and would prefer more gender-neutral covers with graphic design elements (opposed to photos). While this experiment only scratches the surface of how a book might be marketed based on gender stereotypes, it still provides lots of food for thought about why gendering books (as well as their potential readers) could be problematic.

Rachel Stark, from Simon & Schuster, wrote an incredibly incisive piece on the Coverflip Project, which addressed both how the “flipped” covers largely stayed within the gender binary. She also pointed out the insidious misogyny at the heart of people’s discomfort with covers they associated as being “feminine” (for example, one Tumblr user kept pairing the terms “girly and vapid” in her description of the feminine covers). In Stark’s words, “devaluing the feminine and those who embrace it is not the answer to sexism; it is a part of it”. Here’s the whole article.

Which brings me back to my bookstore browsing and my own aversion to book covers or blurbs that charactize a book as being too feminine for my tastes. Is it an aversion to the gender stereotypes, or the female perspective in general? As Rachel Stark says, it’s just as problematic to discount the so-called “feminine” as inherently inferior to the gender-neutral or masculine. Then again, this language is still firmly rooted in a gender spectrum, if not binary. But why can’t we acknowledge this spectrum of preferences and values without assigning them to certain genders? Or if one insists on gender categories, still acknowledging we all have elementsfrom both sides? Each person is a unique expression of these various possibilities. There is no black and white, just endless kaleidoscopic permutations.

In terms of book marketing, what could the answer look like? In a day and age where we have realized that identity is fluid, and gender identity is likewise a variagated spectrum, it seems terribly reductive to create marketing strategies aimed at men or women readers – not only because this excludes potential readers, but because it doesn’t acknowledge the real diversity of these audiences. At the moment, every publishing house is eager to get more nuanced information about readers – HarperCollins even has a new department dedicated to consumer research. I think categories such as gender have functioned as poor stand-ins for real data on readers, who can be grouped in a myriad of specific ways, such as fields of interest, profession, hobbies, media consumption, etc, all of which tell much more about readers’ tastes than their gender does.

I’m not saying one could or should remove all gender associations from a book’s cover or marketing texts, after all, the narrator’s perspective is ususlly a gendered one, and that can play a significant role in stories. But the idea that a certain aesthetic will especially appeal to women or men seems antiquated in an age where the the idea of “gender” is increasingly associated with “trouble”.

HAPPY PRIDE WEEK, to people everywhere on the spectrum!

PS: This will have to suffice as part 1 of a series on gender, women writers and the book world; I actually meant to write about the VIDA statistics, but a lot more has been on my mind. But soon I’ll be adding a link list of exciting projects focusing on women’s, feminist and queer perspectives.