A Conversation With Kenny Fries

Featured nonfiction writer at this year’s Ocean State Writing Conference

Kenny Fries author photo
Photo Credit Michael R. Dekker

by Elizabeth Foulke

In his most recent memoir, In the Province of the Gods, Kenny Fries recounts the time he spent in Japan. There are echoes of his earlier work, as Fries continues to examine what it means to adapt –in this case to an unknown place and culture, as well as to illness and loss. Throughout the memoir, Fries reflects on how to remain malleable in the face of the unexpected.

Kenny Fries is the author of two previous works of literary nonfiction, The History of my Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory and Body Remember. His works also include the poetry collections, In the Garden of Japan, Desert Walking, and Anesthesia. Fries is the editor of Staring Back, a collection of writing by authors with disabilities and wrote the libretto for the opera, The Memory Stone.

This June, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Fries, who lives and works in Berlin. Fries expertly weaves together folklore, scientific theory, and poetry with questions of social policy and the construction of space as they intersect with disability. Our conversation explores his craft, adaptation, Japan, and the continued need to incorporate marginalized voices into our cultural narrative. Below is an excerpt of the interview. The full interview can be found in the print version of the recent edition of The Ocean State Review.

Your new book In the Province of the Gods has a wonderful title, and I was also struck by the section and chapter titles:  “Floating,”  “Barrier Free,” “A Mountain of Skulls and Candlelit Graves,” “Rare and Uncommon Beings,” and “Bubbling Water.” Together they read like poetry. Will you speak a little about how you use and choose language to weave together your lived experience while creating a text that is literary?

I’m glad you like the titles.  Titles have always been important to me.  When working on a book, a title helps me figure out what the book, or a section or chapter of the book, is actually about.  I started out writing poetry and I tend to think associatively and imagistically.  This is probably why you find the titles read like poetry.  In In the Province of the Gods, it is probably also because Japanese is such a different language system than English.  It is mostly a logographic system, rather than the alphabet based language we’re used to.  Images are essential not only to Japanese but also to understanding Japan

I’m really interested in how both your new book and your book The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory incorporate others’ writing. I’m thinking of how Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace figure in The History of My Shoes and how Lafcadio Hearn, Donald Richie, Bashō, and Japanese folklore act as some of your interlocutors in your new book. Can you talk a little about how you engage with other thinkers and writers as part of your wring process? And also if there is any difference in the writing process when you have a sense of who your interlocutors will be prior to writing versus when they come to you as you are (perhaps) already immersed in a project?

I also do this in In the Gardens of Japan and in The Healing Notebooks, and in other poems.  Come to think of it, I also did this a bit in my play, A Human Equation, which was produced at La Mama in New York City a long time ago.  So, it’s not surprising when I moved to writing creative nonfiction, I would continue to do this.  Before writing The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory I knew little about science and evolutionary theory.  This being the case, I built one of the narrative strands of the book using the lives and work of Darwin and Wallace.  Similarly, before I went to Japan, I didn’t know much about Japan.  It was through Donald Richie’s writing—I remember reading his essays in A Lateral View on the plane to Tokyo—and then finding out about Hearn through Richie, that was my first entry into this unfamiliar culture.  This is also a continuum as I then become one in a much longer line of foreign writers who come to, and are beguiled by, Japan.  Then, when in Japan, the people I meet, including Richie, become my interlocutors to understanding Japan, if Japan can, ultimately, be understood.  Mika Kimula, the singer I meet and work with, and the famous simultaneous interpreter known as MM become, each in a different way, other entry points into Japan.

As one who has been accused of romanticizing places, I could identify when Ian accuses you of “romanticizing” Japan.  Romanticizing place is seen as something negative, we’re often cautioned against it. Why or how is romanticizing place problematic?

What I wanted most to do in writing In the Province of the Gods was to avoid the pitfall of “Orientalism.”  This is what I tell Mika when I show her In the Gardens of Japan.  The long history of the West colonizing parts of the world has to be kept in mind when writing about Japan and other places.  The tendency is to exoticize, if not romanticize.  One has to see a place for what it is, just as we need to see a person, as being actual, not as an ideal.  This is probably at the crux of the problems we have in our relationships with people, as well as places. And this is fraught because of what I said previously about the historical context.  I was very pleased when a Japanese composer I’ve worked with on setting In the Gardens of Japan as a song cycle told me she learned a lot about Japanese gardens through my work.  Similarly, a Japanese man who was instrumental in founding the wonderful Japanese garden in Houston, where The Memory Stone, the opera for which I was commissioned to write the libretto is set, wrote to me after seeing the opera to say how well I understood Japanese culture.  And now, the advance praise of In the Province of the Gods from Japanese American writer Marie Mutuski Mockett, tells me I, hopefully, did succeed in rendering Japan without reverting to “romanticizing” or “exoticizing” what I experienced into “Orientalism.”

So now you are no longer in Japan and have moved to Germany. What have you noticed about the ways in which ideas and attitudes towards disability contribute to the construction of  space in Germany?

I think attitudes and ideas about disability are always reflected in constructed spaces.  I see more people with disabilities out and about in Berlin than in any other place I’ve lived.  Some of this is due to the more modern infrastructure as much of Berlin had to be reconstructed after the war, and then again after reunification.  That said, disability history in Germany is fraught with what happened to those with disabilities during the Third Reich, which is a focus of my current book-in-progress, Stumbling over History.  Today, in the U.S. there would be quite a flap made if a public space wasn’t accessible to, say, women or African Americans.  But in so many places, despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are many places those with disabilities cannot go because of how things are built.  Money is always an excuse in not making places accessible.  And it is only that, an excuse.

Now you have me thinking about this idea of whose stories are privileged and how we live and work within preexisting structures which continue to shape a culture’s thoughts and beliefs about disability. Who are some of the people you read who are pushing up against the dominant and deleterious narratives about disability?

There is good work being done on this not only in the U. S. but globally.  In the U.S., those I read are disability scholars such as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson.  There’s also Carrie Sandahl, whose work on performance and disability is crucial.  Creative writers I read who are pushing up against, or shall we say going beyond, the dominant narratives about disability are Anne Finger and Susan R. Nussbaum.  Anne writes both fiction (Call Me Ahab, a short story collection, and will have a new novel, A Woman in Bed, out next year) and nonfiction (Elegy for A Disease:  A Personal and Cultural History of Polio) Susan is a playwright whose first novel, Good Kings Bad Kings won the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.  Anne and Susan are just two of the writers who are moving us forward in how we think about and portray disability.

Finally, I’d like to ask about language again. Once you learn more about the disabled god, Ebisu, you have a different awareness when you see the Ebisu statue: “As I pass the Ebisu statue, I now see Ebisu as a disabled god. Hanada-sensei is right –Ebisu does not sit quite right.” It is as though Hanada-sensei’s recounting the story of Ebisu, made visible what you unknowingly passed by before. What you write about, your experience, also helps to further the dialogue in disability studies and make visible things that have been overlooked. What continues to be overlooked in Western culture due to our lack of language for, or a lack of narratives that incorporate the experience of people with disabilities?

I do hope my work has furthered the dialogue, not only in disability studies, but also in literary circles and beyond.  But the reality is that all it takes is one Hollywood movie, be it Million Dollar Baby or more recently, You Before Me to show the work I do is but a drop in the bucket.  We are still enmeshed with seeing disability from the medical and religious model, where it needs to be eradicated or is seen as a punishment or from God.  Within literary culture there are often articles written about writers from diverse backgrounds.  These articles rarely, if ever, include writers with disabilities.  Once again, we have a structure that reflects attitudes about disability.  If we don’t reinscribe the tropes of overcoming disability, or the tragedy of being disabled, or our narrative is not the narrative of the disabled person ennobling or teaching the nondisabled about themselves, we remain, for the most part, invisible.