Writer and activist Eve Ensler, who is best known for her play “The Vagina Monologues,” went to the Congo to help women victims of violence, and while there learned she had uterine cancer. She recounts her experience in her book “In the Body of the World: A Memoir of Cancer and Connection.” Ensler speaks at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 20, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Tickets are $32 for members, $40 for nonmembers. Her new play, a stage adaptation of her recent memoir, premiers at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, May 10-29.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
ENSLER: I’m reading a book by Derrick Jensen, which is incredible, “The Myth of Human Supremacy,” and “From #Black LivesMatter to Black Liberation,” a new book by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a really brilliant black scholar. I’m also reading Angela Y. Davis’s new book, “Freedom is a Constant Struggle,” and Wendell Berry’s collection of essays about the environment, “Our Only World.” I go back to Berry all the time.
BOOKS: Do you regularly read about the environment?
ENSLER: When I wrote my play “O.P.C.” I spent a year immersing myself in books on the environment. I read Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything,” all of Derrick Jenson’s books, “Endgame” and others, and books by Bill McKibben.
BOOKS: How do you keep from getting depressed?
ENSLER: Sometimes when I read Jenson I have to go to bed for days afterward. The prognosis is so dim, but at the same time I find the reading inspirational because it makes me so angry.
BOOKS: Do you read fiction?
ENSLER: I largely read nonfiction. I read novels and poetry all the time too, but I just feel the world is so strange that reading nonfiction is like reading fiction.
BOOKS: Which poets do you read the most?
ENSLER: I read Marie Howe, Audre Lorde, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, and Michael Klein. I’m obsessed with Leonard Cohen’s poetry lately. I also read the black American poet Lucille Clifton. I think she needs to be much better known.
BOOKS: When did you discover poetry?
ENSLER: I began as a poet. I think poetry is at the root of everything for me. It keeps me connected to the place where meaning exists primarily in what is not said. It really informs a lot of my playwriting.
BOOKS: Do you make reading goals?
ENSLER: I’m really trying to read more economic analysis. I’m reading “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty. I’m pushing myself, but I feel it’s critical to understanding what economic structures are doing to the world.
BOOKS: Have you become a more ambitious reader over time?
ENSLER: Yes. I’m working on a new play for which I spent months reading about matriarchal cultures and goddesses. That opened so many new territories to me. You read the footnotes in books and see other books you want to read. That is my favorite thing to do, to research and see what kind of paths that sets me on.
BOOKS: What did you read when you had cancer?
ENSLER: I read tons of memoirs about cancer, such as books about Susan Sontag. There’s a beautifully written book by Philip Shepherd, “New Self, New World,” that was really helpful. During the actual cancer treatment I did not read. I immersed myself in bad TV series. I was a blob. Sometimes your body wants to be still and not be pressured.
BOOKS: Which books have had big influences on you?
ENSLER: James Baldwin had a big impact on me. I still read “The Fire Next Time” once or twice a year. I think Baldwin is one of the greatest writers of his time in how he dealt with political material in a very personal and poetic way. The two books I read over and over as a child were “Death Be Not Proud” by John Gunther, the story of a boy who had a brain tumor, and the other one was “Hiroshima” by John Hersey. My father used to joke, “You’ve only read two books.’’
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