Kenny Fries, who was born missing bones in his legs, travelled to Japan to explore how the Japanese view people with disabilities. In Japan, he discovered (it’s almost a rumor) a god with a disability, although whether he’s Shinto or Buddhist is unclear. Fries returned to Japan a second time, but before arriving, he is diagnosed with HIV.
In In the Province of the Gods, Fries spins a tale of exciting, beguiling adventure. As he visits Japanese gardens, experiences Noh and butoh, and meets artists and scholars, he also discovers one-eyed samurai, blind chanting priests, and A-bomb survivors. Because many Asian cultures see disability from the Buddhist point of view—the result of having done something wrong in a previous life—he is surprised when these assumptions are challenged, “Perhaps the two women stared at me not because I am disabled, but because I am new to the neighborhood, and because I am a gaijin, a foreigner? This is something I had never thought of before.”
Fries’s HIV diagnosis shakes up all of his assumptions about Japan, the body, and mortality and he is propelled to a new understanding of how to live with the constant knowledge of impermanence and threat of loss. In the end, not only was Japan the right place to discover a culture unlike his own, but Japan was also the perfect place to learn how to re-conceive and re-enter his life.
Alexandria Marzano Lesnevich is a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts fellow. She has received a Rona Jaffe Award and has twice been a fellow at both MacDowell and Yaddo. Her essays appear in the New York Times, Oxford American, and the anthologies TRUE CRIME and WAVEFORM: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, as well as many other publications. She received her JD from Harvard, her MFA at Emerson College, and her BA from Columbia University. She now lives in Boston, where she teaches at Grub Street and in the graduate public policy program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.