Fries, Kenny, “In the Province of the Gods”, (Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies), University of Wisconsin Press, 2017.
A Journey of Self-Discovery
Kenny Fries embarks on a journey of profound self-discovery as a disabled foreigner in Japan and Japan is known as a society that is historically hostile to difference. As he visits gardens, experiences Noh and butoh, meets artists and scholars, he also discovers disabled gods, one-eyed samurai, blind chanting priests, and A-bomb survivors. When he is diagnosed as HIV positive, all of what he assumed about Japan, the body, and mortality are shaken, and he must find a way to live on new terms.
This is an intense look at a man who is trying to keep himself alive. Everything is at stake here—health, affection, culture, trauma, language and we are surprised to discover what thrives in the midst of suffering. We see that the best and surest way “to discover the self is to look out at the world, and second, that the best way to teach others about something is to tell them not ‘what it is,’ but what it means to you”. Fries’s prose is full of compassion and curiosity, and what he learns about himself is as fascinating and compelling as what he learns about Japan. Having read other works by Fries in the past, I knew that he is a wonderful writer and he tackles issues of cultural and physical difference, sexuality, love, loss, mortality, and the ephemeral nature of beauty and art with aplomb here. This is also a love letter to Japan and we see that Japan embraced him at a time when he needed acceptance the most. However, the real message of book is that it gives us a “profound sense of what it means to be truly alive.”