Kathy Acker and Eve Ensler are two pillars of contemporary feminist writing whose creative practice have been key in shaping the voices of today regarding the literary empowerment of women and LGTBQ+ individuals. In this article I propose an analysis of their work from the perspective of three main notions: their contribution to experimental writing and literary innovation, their strong engagement with politics—particularly regarding the topics of feminism and sexuality—and their search for meaning and identity.
Kathy Acker (1944 – 1997) was an American experimental novelist, playwright, punk poet, essayist and feminist writer who gained relevance during the ’80s and the ’90s and became a key figure of the New York underground culture and the postmodernist movement in America. On her ‘Introduction’ to the compilation of selected writings from Acker, Essential Acker (ed. 2002), Jeanette Winterson states the following:
There are three things to say about Acker:
Despite being born in New York, Acker’s family heritage and her living in countries like Germany, France or England were key factors in the development of her writing practice, as she was highly influenced by the European avant-gardes and Modernism from her early stages. Theorists like Peter Bürger stated that avant-gardism was only possible during the first half of the twentieth century, establishing a timeline for this literary movement from a beginning to an end after War World II. However, I find a great interest in Georgina Colby’s idea (2016), which argues “that avant-gardism remains a permanent possibility within the modernist tradition as a militantly interventionist option”. Following this idea, Acker’s work is not only a consequence of this aforementioned influence but a key figure of the American post-war avant-garde.
In relation to being ahead of her time, Acker’s experimental work raised many questions regarding several topics that were suppressed by the general moral scrutiny and censorship. In her fiction and essays, she explicitly addressed the issues of sexuality from several points of view, especially exploring the human body both from her own experience and also from a metafictional perspective, in which she uses her own persona as a character. Her association with the punk culture in New York and her job as a striptease dancer were key factors in the development of her thought as a sex-positive and feminist writer.
Acker’s fiction is marked by the constant relationship between form and content. She rejected the traditional values of narrative and drama and instead created a unique style that conformed a new way of writing fiction, a proper channel by which she could express her different explorations in relation to the human body, sex, women and identity. It is worth mentioning Acker’s way of using punctuation and spaces, for instance, as she refuses to follow the traditional grammatical forms and opts for a more liquid way of pouring out her character’s emotion. Moreover, she uses the physical page as a visual tool. From ‘Journal Black Cats Black Jewels’ (1972):
In these fragments, Acker ignores the usual norm regarding sentence building, punctuation, capital letters and spaces in order to provide the extract with more visual power and enhance the meaning of each individual fragment on its own.
Another important feature of Acker’s work is something that has been a product of controversy throughout her whole career: what the music industry has recently termed as “sampling”, the author’s use of someone else’s material to develop their own. Acker’s sampling is not accidental, there is a purpose, as she combines literary tradition with innovation making use of this resource. Many of her characters are important figures from the European avant-garde paradigm, such as Toulouse, from The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec (1975); Pasolini, from My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini or Baudelaire, from The Life of Baudelaire. Some of her characters are also prominent literary protagonists, such as Don Quixote, from Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream. Furthermore, as I mentioned before, she characterises her own persona, not only set off from her own experience but also in this “sampling” way in which she separates her writer self from her character self, creating a new form of reality, a metafictional model that is usually misconceived as autobiography. As Winterson (2002) portrays it, [Acker] believed that a writer could be a vibrant amalgam of confession and imagination. She worked on the difficult boundary of formal experiment and naked desire.
Eve Ensler (1953) is an American playwright, performer, essayist and feminist activist that gained international relevance after the publishing of her best-selling play The Vagina Monologues (1998). In 2006, The New York Times labelled it as ‘probably the most important piece of political theatre of the last decade.’ As the book’s popularity increased, her performances of the monologues inspired Ensler to create the global movement known as V-Day, which aims to stop violence against women and girls worldwide. In The Vagina Monologues, Ensler introduces her play by stating the following:
I bet you’re worried. I was worried. That’s why I began this piece. I was worried about vaginas. I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don’t think about them. I was worried about my own vagina. It needed a context of other vaginas—a community, a culture of vaginas. There’s so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them—like the Bermuda Triangle. Nobody ever reports back from there.
During the 1990s, the author travelled all around the world and interviewed women from all ages and backgrounds about their vaginas. What in 2019 may seem like a superficial and banal topic, was actually a social revolution that put women and their sexuality in the spotlight without erring on the objectivisation from which women have been victims all throughout history. Eve Ensler talked to women, asked them about their vaginas, about their sexualities, about their bodies, about their feelings and emotions, about their importance in the world. She talked to Americans, Caucasians, Afro-American, Jewish, Indian, Japanese… she talked to young women, to older women, to shy women, to sexual abuse victims, to mothers. And then, after gathering all of these testimonies, she wrote this play and then performed it all around the world: sometimes in big, crowded theatres, sometimes in clandestine rooms with small audiences. She created the V-Day movement and has been fighting ever since for women’s rights all around the globe.
In this book, Ensler develops a journalistic investigation, she carries out interviews with all sorts of women and then gathers all the information she has obtained to create a literary work. In my opinion, the main attraction of this monologue resides in two basic notions: in the first place, the honesty of the topic, the truthfulness of what she is talking about and, as she portrays it, the necessity to talk about it; in second place, the blurry boundary between nonfiction and fiction, a book where journalism merges with drama, where facts meet interpretation. We could argue that The Vagina Monologues find its sequel in I Am An Emotional Creature (2010), a similar book where this time Ensler meets with teenagers and girls from around the world to gather their testimony and include them in the feminist paradigm. She gives them a voice, she inspires her monologues in their experiences, in their feelings, she states that they need to be heard and offers them a channel to speak out loud. In this specific book, not only journalistic and dramatic elements are inserted, but also a more poetic tone, a more fluid form which contents a very specific meaning: be emotional, girls of the world, be emotional creatures and don’t let anyone crush your passion and your greatness.
In this sense, Ensler’s use of character sampling is similar to Acker’s, as she uses her own persona as a channel to all of these monologues, and though it arguably differs from Acker’s practice, it is also a form of experimentation that has its aim in finding the proper way to express identity through sexuality, through the human body. However, whereas Acker opts for a fictional model, Ensler’s main innovation resides in her use of factual information to create a dramatic setting in which information and poetics are inherently intertwined.
Both Kathy Acker and Eve Ensler are rightfully considered as key figures in the feminist literary paradigm. They have opened new paths of formal experimentation and political engagement to many other women and individuals who identify as queer who nowadays have a better chance to access the conversation because of authors like them. That is why their work remains relevant in the theory and practice of feminist and LGTBQ+ literature.