Books

Kenny Fries: From memoir to mortality and impermanence

by Suzanne Kamata

Contributing Writer

When asked about his affection for Pikachu, American author Kenny Fries breaks into laughter. No, he says in an interview via Skype, the iconic Pokemon character had nothing to do with his decision to come to Japan. He came initially because, after applying for various fellowships, he was awarded the prestigious Creative Arts Fellowship from the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002 to research and write about disability in Japan.

In the Province of The Gods, by Kenny Fries.
216 pages
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN PRESS, Nonfiction.

Fries has a disability himself. He was born without fibulae, a condition that has no scientific name, and subsequently underwent multiple surgical operations. In addition to having published three books of poetry and an anthology, Fries has written two highly acclaimed hybrid memoirs. In his first, “Body, Remember: A Memoir,” he writes about the history of his physical and psychic scars and his sexual awakening as a young gay man. His second, equally innovative memoir, “The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory,” blends biological research with his own experience of adaptation. This volume was awarded the 2007 Myers Outstanding Book Award.

At the beginning of his latest autobiographical book, “In the Province of the Gods,” Fries has just arrived in Japan. Having separated from his long-term partner, he is single for the first time in 18 years. Although nervous about being alone in a foreign country, and wondering if he will ever find another partner, he is rarely lonely. Thanks to the support offered by the fellowship, he is quickly introduced to a number of influential individuals including Masumi Muramatsu, the founder of Simul International, Japan’s “best-known school for interpreters”; Satoshi Fukushima, “a deaf-blind Tokyo University professor who runs Todai’s Barrier-Free Project”; and Mika Kimula, a singer who later puts Fries’ poems to music.

He also travels to Hiroshima, where he meets two of the 25 Hiroshima Maidens, women who were sent to the United States for plastic surgery after being disfigured by the atomic blast. Furthermore, he seeks guidance in the writings of Donald Richie — with whom he later strikes up a friendship — and Lafcadio Hearn, who he discovers had vision in only one eye, and who recounted some stories about disabled characters in Japan.

After his first trip to the country, Fries tested positive for the HIV virus. With instructions to monitor his T-cell count, Fries returned to Japan for a second extended stay in 2006 on a Fullbright grant.

Back in Tokyo, he discovers that his friend Muramatsu has suffered a stroke, and is now disabled. On a second visit to the Hiroshima Maidens, he realizes that he relates to them differently: “The stigma feels more internal, invisible but more palpable, moving through my body as the radiation moved through the bodies of those who survived.” Fries also begins a relationship with Mike, a Canadian teaching English in Hokkaido.

During a solitary visit to Lafcadio Hearn’s Old Residence, he reflects, “The book about disability in Japan is the book I came to write. Now, with all that has changed, it seems there is another more urgent book to write, a book where I am more subject than researcher.”

Ultimately, Fries wrote 27 drafts, but it was not until the 23rd that the book finally found its form. “There was a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor,” he confesses. The finished book is less about disability in Japan than a meditation on how different cultures deal with impermanence and mortality.

Fries’ time in Japan also led to what he refers to as “probably the most satisfying creative experience I’ve ever had.” He was asked to write a libretto for “The Memory Stone,” an opera exploring memory and transcendence in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku. The opera premiered in Houston in a Japanese garden at the Asia Society before an audience of 2,500, and was filmed by PBS. Fries describes it as “part-Noh, part Midsummer Night’s Dream.” BroadwayWorld.com‘s critic David Clarke praised it as “gripping” and “profound.” Fries reflects that it was the “first thing in decades that I’d written without a disabled character.”

Fries currently lives with Mike, now his husband, in Berlin, where he completed “In the Province of the Gods” with support from a Creative Capital grant. He is currently researching disability in Nazi Germany and he wryly notes that as a gay, disabled, Jewish man, he would have achieved the “Nazi Trifecta.” Meanwhile, he also teaches in the Low Residency MFA Program at Goddard College.

He still feels a strong affinity with Japan. “There’s something about it,” he says. “Something about Asia speaks to me.”

Although he is not sure how much longer he will be able to travel, he intends to live life to the fullest while he can. “I don’t want to live with regret,” he says.