Book Review: In the Province of the Gods (Kenny Fries)
Reviewed by Michael Uniacke
In Western mainstream terms, Kenny Fries is on the outer thrice over. He is Jewish, gay, and disabled. In Japan, he imagines he has to add a fourth: he's gaijin, a foreigner. To his surprise, while he is in Japan, it's as a gaijin that the Japanese regard him. The other three seem almost incidental. All they do is make up the man he is.
That's one of the things that emerges in Fries' remarkable memoir, In the Province of the Gods. He tells of his quest to "study the lives of disabled people in Japan". He wants to find out how the Japanese regard disability. He's heard that one of the numerous Japanese gods, Ebisu, has cerebral palsy. He also wants to go to Japan with his partner, Ian, as an attempt to regain a "sense of purpose" in their relationship.
Ian had helped him write a grant application, which is successful. That's when things start to go wrong. Ian decides he will not go, and wants to separate. Suddenly, Fries is going alone, to a strange land, in the aftermath of the end of an 18-year relationship. And he soon finds out that while Ebisu may be the name of a disabled God, it's far better known as the name of a local beer. This rather inauspicious beginning sets the tone of the quest: nothing is like it seems. In fact, being so beset by troubles, including difficulty with Japanese customs because of physical disability, one imagines Fries would retreat and turn inwards. Instead, he ploughs on and looks outwards.
Books with a quest element to them run the risk that enquirers merely find what they want to find. This does not happen with Fries. It's because of his attitude to the visit, and because of the way he writes. Fries makes no pre-conceptions about life in Japan. He goes with an open mind. He does not impose himself on Japan; he allows Japan to happen to him. He tells how this happens in a lucid, gentle style that at times becomes lyrical:
I don't understand any of the scroll-like ads dangling alongside the hold-on
straps: smiling women's faces; phosphorescently cute mascot-like creatures; ethereal landscapes of placid rivers,
cloudless blue skies, and snow-topped mountains.
In a gay bar, he meets Masa, who despite an inclination to become drunk, becomes a friend. Masa has a lover, Stuart, in Boston, and goes there. When Masa returns to Japan, he tells Fries that he told Stuart that he has met an American writer:
And about your physical fact
This is a happy jolting moment. Fries is delighted with the description of disability, his particular impairment at least, which captures much of what he is beginning to sense is a Japanese attitude of acceptance that this is what is.
here, being a gaijin comes first, not being disabled. In Japan I am treated as a foreigner because I am a foreigner, an outsider, while in the United States, my native country, I am treated as an outsider when I'm not. So far, in Japan my disability has been treated routinely as nothing more or less than a physical fact.
Fries was born with bones missing in both his legs. He uses orthopedic shoes and a cane to get around. This raises the intriguing question, would Fries' experience of disability in Japan be different were he to have an impairment that is wholly invisible? Or something far more pronounced and obvious than someone who walks with a difference? It seems that Fries' disability tilts into the just-visible category; he says it's not obvious when he is seated.
It's tempting to think that Fries is speaking for all disability, and if so, the book would not work because the immense diversity of disability would defeat its purpose. But Fries is not any sort of spokesperson for disability. The point of the book is not so much disability itself but the attitude towards disability in a country very different to Western traditions and outlooks, and the impact it has on Fries' life at the time. He thus combines culture, tradition, mythology and folklore with the physical fact in a way that is absorbing, moving and intensely human. It gives a curious echo of Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That book too is a journey, with its chautauquas and exploration into the nature of quality.
Fries' research leads him to many Japanese people, some connected to language, some to disability. They treat him with honour and friendship. His quest for Ebisu, his pursuit of the writings of the 19th century American journalist Lafcadio Hearn, his search for the stories of disability, serve as a unifying element against the backdrop of tumultuous events in his own life. His relationship with Ian ends, he is HIV positive, and for a time his t-cell count drops alarmingly low. But he also meets Mike, who becomes the love of his life. Mike's response to the low t-cell count is simple and absolutely right:
You'll need more than low t-cells to get rid of me.
In the unsettled and often angry world of disability politics, Kenny Fries' memoir enters centre stage, projecting an oasis of calm and insightful enquiry. In Japan, Fries finds disability in many places, because he seeks it out, but it is also nowhere. His ultimate conclusion suggests mindfulness, a quality of being in the moment:
What is it like to be disabled in Japan? That koan-question, which has followed me throughout my days in Japan, is raised once again. A complex question, which is one of experience, not of resolution.
As it turns out, the statues of Ebisu show the God as sitting not quite right, as neither standing nor sitting. It's accepted he has some kind of paralysis, and that's very satisfying to know. And for a God, a supposedly perfect supernatural being, that feels exactly right. Who knows, Ebisu might be the most human god that ever was.
Title: In the Province of the Gods