Thursday, January 18, 2018

Kenny Fries's "In the Province of the Gods"

Kenny Fries is the author, most recently, of In the Province of the Gods, which received the Creative Capital literature grant. He is the author of The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, which received the Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights, and Body, Remember. He edited Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. His books of poems include In the Gardens of Japan, Desert Walking, and Anesthesia. He was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan/US Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, twice a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany), and has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Council for the Arts, and Toronto Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College.

Fries applied the “Page 99 Test” to In the Province of the Gods and reported the following:
“It starts with a dull pain in my upper-right side.” Thus begins page 99 of In the Province of the Gods. This is the first step in the discovery about my health, which will propel the rest of the book’s narrative.

Page 99 also introduces Dr. Shay, my New York City doctor, whose support allows me to go to Japan for the second time. And, on this page, Ian, my ex, with whom I broke up at the start of the book, and readers will be familiar with from my previous book, The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, makes an appearance. Though Ian didn’t make the trip with me to Japan, his presence has been felt throughout my first stay in Japan, which comprises the first section of In the Province of the Gods.

I’ve often called In the Province of the Gods “my happy book about death.” Yes, the book is about my time in Japan, and about disability in Japan, but the overarching theme of the book is about mortality. Page 99 takes place in the book’s brief second section, when I’m back in New York City, soon to return to Japan, where I first went to research disability in a culture different from my own. The chapter, which starts on p. 99, is called “After,” which refers to how I felt at the time, that the medical diagnosis I was to receive less than ten pages later has bifurcated my life.

Five pages later, I’m back in Japan, where I learn in a mortal life there is no before, no after. I begin to understand life as a continuum, more true to the experience and people I meet in Japan than what I’m accustomed to in the West. It is in coming to terms with how to move forward with the constant knowledge of mortality, brought to a climax when I meet two of the surviving Hiroshima Maidens, that brings the book to its conclusion.

Page 99 of In the Province of the Gods begins to solve both the tangible and intangible mystery held in the very first line of the book: “If ever I needed the presence of the gods, now is the time.” It is just one example of how the physical means much more than a “dull pain” felt in particular part of one’s body. It is the beginning of what just might be akin if not to a spiritual awakening, then to a spiritual reckoning, which is at the lyrical core of the book.
Visit Kenny Fries's website.

--Marshal Zeringue