Joan Silber interviews Kenny Fries about Japan, the threat of illness, and the panorama of history
by Joan Silber
I first met Kenny Fries at The MacDowell Colony, when he was talking happily about a fellowship in Tokyo starting that summer. By chance, I had already signed up for a hiking trip outside Kyoto and I decided to pop in on Kenny at the end of it. That was the first of three visits with him as guide and companion. I saw how his deep interest and respect for Japanese culture won him the tender regard of people wherever we went. As a fiction writer, I have always loved the way his writing links the events of his own life with questions raised by the narratives of history. He has been an intense researcher who takes his research personally. I had much I wanted to ask him about after reading In the Province of the Gods.
Joan Silber: What drew you to Japan in the first place? When did you know you wanted to write about your time there?
Kenny Fries: At first, it wasn’t Japan I was drawn to. I wanted to live abroad again and I was experiencing mobility issues and didn’t know how that would affect my ability to do so. I applied for numerous grants and received the Creative Arts Fellowship from the Japan/US Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. I had done some research on disability in Japan. One of my online students at the time lived in Japan, and serendipitously she knew a bit about disability in Japan, so she was quite helpful in making my grant proposal workable. But as soon as I arrived in Japan, as bewildering as some of my first encounters with the culture were, I sensed I had arrived at the right place.
JS: I’ve always loved the way your work connects the intimacy of private life with the panorama of history. In the Province of the Gods includes personal chapters about the threat of illness and the arrival of love. How did you get these to fit what you wanted to say about Japan?
KF: Life intervened, as it often, perhaps always, does. Of course, when I started writing the book, I had no idea what would happen during my second stay in Japan, and how that would impact what I wrote about my first stay. This was a very difficult writing challenge. I had to go back to the first part of the book to foreshadow thematically what was to happen later.
But when I went back and looked at the first part of the book, I saw the themes of impermanence and loss were always there. Tangibly, there was the loss I experienced with the ending of my relationship with Ian, who was supposed to accompany me to Japan, but also there was the importance of impermanence that seems to pervade Japanese culture.
Looking back on the first part of the book, it was clear to me that what I wrote about my first visit to Hiroshima and my visit to Koya-san on Obon, the Japanese holiday for ancestor remembrance, were precursors to what was to happen later.
JS: The book looks at disability in both traditional and modern Japan—from the blind biwa players of past centuries to the “Hiroshima maidens” who survived atomic warfare in World War II. It made me suddenly aware of how little I knew of how the disabled in the U.S. were regarded in, say, George Washington’s time. How crucial is attention to history? Or is the importance of tradition a key difference between the U.S. and Japan?
KF: The knowledge of history is important. I’ve recently written a piece for The New York Times about the importance of disability history, as well as the lack of knowledge, even among disabled people, about this history.
My search for disability representation in Japanese history and culture was fitful during my first stay. But during my second stay, the floodgates opened and I discovered a lot of disability in things Japanese, including gods, folktales, historical figures, even a creation myth in which disability is central. Some of this made it into the book, some didn’t.
Context, historical or otherwise, is important when looking at disability. This is something I wrote about explicitly in The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, where I talk about how Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” was not the full phrase. The full phrase was “survival of the fittest in a particular environment.” There are many situations, such as my hike with Ian up the Beehive in Maine, which I recount in that book, in which disability is actually an advantage.
I found this idea of disability as being advantageous in certain situations again in Tanizaki’s “A Blind Man’s Tale,” something that didn’t make it into the book. I’ve kept all of these “outtakes,” and was glad to write about “A Blind Man’s Tale” for my publisher’s website blog. So now people can read about that there.
In In the Province of the Gods, I write a bit about how, as Japan moved from an agrarian to a warrior culture, mentions of disability, even of disabled historical figures, seem to disappear. In the book, I weave this around what happens to my good friend MM, the famous Japanese interpreter, after his stroke. This, I think, might be one of the best examples in the book of what you talked about earlier: how I connect the intimacy of private life with the panorama of history.
JS: You write about your parents visiting you in Tokyo at a time when you were in the hospital, and they arrived to see you in bed surrounded by friends and the “hospitality and care” you knew throughout your stay. Can you say why this generosity seemed Japanese? What do you think are its sources?
KF: Before I went to Japan I was told by a teacher—I took some Japanese lessons before departure from an American who had spent a lot of time in Japan—that I would have difficulty making close friends in Japan. This was certainly not what happened. The friendships I made in Japan remain to this day, perhaps none as strong as my friendship with the singer Mika Kimula.
How I wish MM was still alive to read In the Province of the Gods. His kindness—he escorted my parents to the hospital when they arrived in Japan—is something I will always treasure. You were lucky to have met MM so you know what I’m talking about. You experienced his kindness and joie de vivre firsthand, and I hope I captured this in the book.
What I think differentiates the “hospitality and care” of the Japanese is how this is ingrained in the culture. This can, at times, when pushed to an extreme, become a caricature of itself, but it very real nonetheless. For example, how my landlady, Eiko-san, made sure I was well taken care of in the hospital, and how MM somehow planned to have the birthday cake at the restaurant for my father’s 70th birthday.
The kindness was also evident in my Fulbright advisor Matsui-sensei, who invited me into his home to meet his family, as well as with things that didn’t make it into the book, like the New Year’s Day Mike and I spent with a Fulbright host and his family. It was a very special day, which included Mike being given a koto lesson by the host’s sister.
JS: You’ve chosen to use many terms in Japanese, and the reader picks up their meaning from context. Can you talk about your experience living outside language in Japan?
KF: For some reason, I seem to thrive in places where I don’t know the language! I think a short episode in the book encapsulates it best. The short scene where I’m riding on the Tokyo subway and I learn to pronounce words whose meaning I don’t know. And the ads, which I imagine to be about something that turns out to be far from what the ad is actually about. But I liked what I imagined better than the actuality. You experienced this, too, I remember, when you tried to figure out what that ad with the smiling young woman in a pastoral setting was about. Both of us had no idea it was an ad for a dentist.
Now, living in Berlin, I at least can read things, though I don’t understand much of what I read. In Japan, I couldn’t read the kanji, so I was totally lost. But I find a certain freedom in this. I’m sure the conversations I hear are the same as the ones I would hear back in the U.S. But not understanding the words I can either ignore what’s being said more easily, or enter into the puzzle of figuring out what it is I’m overhearing.
JS: You have said that it was freeing to have your first identity be gaijin (foreigner) rather than disabled person. Can you say more about how you felt this freedom? And I’d love to hear how being a foreigner in Tokyo differed from being a foreigner in Berlin, where you now live.
KF: Yes, that’s one of my first realizations, a true discovery, toward the beginning of the book. Sometimes, there’s such a big deal made of a disability. This just didn’t happen in Japan. This is not to say it doesn’t happen to others with different disabilities, or to Japanese with disabilities, something I make clear in the book. But that was my experience, encapsulated when a Japanese man I was involved with refers to my disability as a “physical fact.” And also by my experience with the Japanese grandmother at the onsen when she teaches me to fix my yukata so I won’t trip over it.
Berlin is the first city I’ve lived in where I’ve used a wheelchair a lot of the time. It is far more accessible than Toronto, where Mike and I lived for over six years. But things are easier for me than it is for others with different disabilities. If an elevator is broken, or we encounter stairs, I can get up and walk, and Mike can carry the wheelchair. This, of course, is not the case for many disabled people.
I see more disabled people out and about in Berlin than in other cities in which I’ve lived. I’ve also seen more disabled people in places where I usually don’t encounter them—at gay clubs, and even at gay sex clubs. Considering I was once not allowed into a gay bar in Florence, something I write about in Body, Remember, this comes as both relief and surprise.
JS: Much has been said about the form of the memoir and the dilemma of its connection to remembered experience conflicting with its need for coherent design. Was this an issue while you were writing In the Province of the Gods?
KF: Shaping this book took a long time. I didn’t figure out what it was actually about until around the twenty-third draft. I’ve always kept in mind what my first editor, Carole DeSanti, told me when editing Body, Remember. Carole said there comes a time when the world of one’s life must diverge from the world of the book. Specifically, she was talking about my introducing a new character at a very late stage in the book when a reader is expecting closure. But I think what she said has great resonance. I’ve had many discussions with my students about what constitutes “truth” in a memoir. Is memory “truth”?
Now, in the context of what’s happening in the culture of “fake news,” writing memoir might take on a heavier burden. But when writing a memoir I think it’s important to realize that what we remember, and how we design—I like your choice of the word design—what we remember is, though based in what actually happened, a fiction, of sorts.
JS: You’ve also written a chamber opera, The Memory Stone—which premiered with the Houston Grand Opera in 2013—that deals with Japan. How different was it writing the book and the opera?
When I walked into the rehearsal room in Houston, what surprised me was how much the opera was inundated with death. I’ve always described The Memory Stone as a cross between Noh drama and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I knew I had written a story in which it was difficult to tell who was alive and who was dead. In this post-earthquake and post-tsunami opera, the characters live in a liminal zone between what happened and what’s happening. The two Japanese American women at the story’s center, both realize they’ve been living between the dual identities of Japanese and American. It’s only by reliving a specific episode of loss from their earlier lives do they find a way for these identities to meet. Just as in In the Province of the Gods I realize life is a continuum, with no before and no after, Rei and Hanna in The Memory Stone realize a continuum within themselves of being Japanese American.
JS: Do you have a favorite form?
KF: Poetry has always been at the heart of what I write, no matter the form. I guess this is why my work has always been noted for its economy. But there came a time when I couldn’t figure out how poetry could hold what my work needed it to hold, a social world. Of course, there are poets who are able to do this, such as Adrienne Rich, one of my first writer role models. I just couldn’t figure out how to do what I wanted to do in poems. That said, I’m thrilled In the Gardens of Japan, the poem sequence that is a crucial early narrative turning point in In the Province of the Gods, has been published as a companion, of sorts, to the memoir. That Ian designed In the Gardens of Japan and did the drawings further connects it to the memoir.
I’d jump at the chance to write another opera libretto. I just don’t want to do it on spec. At this point in my life, I don’t want to spend too much time on something that, in all probability, won’t be produced. I have some very good ideas for some operas, one even Japan-related, if there’s anyone out there who wants to commission it.
JS: What’s next?
What’s immediately next is Stumbling over History, a book that looks at the history of disability in Germany, past and present, with a focus on the Nazi T4 program and its aftermath, which killed 300,000 disabled people during the Third Reich. The New York Times just published an article I wrote based on some of this research. That’s what originally took me to Berlin. And here I am four years later.
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Joan Silber is the author of eight books of fiction. Her first book, the novel Household Words won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her other works of fiction are In the City, In My Other Life, Lucky Us, Ideas of Heaven, finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize, The Size of the World, finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize in Fiction, and Fools, longlisted for the National Book Award and finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her novel, Improvement, will be published in November 2017.
Kenny Fries is the author of Body, Remember: A Memoir and The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, winner of the Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights. He is the editor of Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out and the author of the libretto for The Memory Stone, an opera commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera. His books of poems include Anesthesia, Desert Walking, and In the Gardens of Japan. His memoir, In the Province of the Gods, which received the Creative Capital literature grant, was recently published by University of Wisconsin Press.