Acclaimed writer Kenny Fries has a message to impart tomorrow when he speaks to University of Mary Washington students: “Disability is just a different way of moving through the world.”
Fries, an author and activist whose work focuses on his experiences of being disabled and gay, comes to UMW to deliver the keynote address for James Farmer Multicultural Center’s duo of commemorations: Disability Awareness Month and Gender & Sexual Minorities & Allies cultural celebration. The event will be held in the University Center’s Chandler Ballroom Wednesday at 4 p.m. and livestreamed via Zoom.
A prolific writer, Fries earned a master’s degree in playwriting from Columbia University. He has published the award-winning In the Province of the Gods, The History of My Shoes and The Evolution of Darwin’s Theory and Body, Remember: A Memoir as well as several books of poetry, and he edited the literary anthology Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. Fries is also the recipient of numerous awards, grants and fellowships and is a two-time Fulbright Scholar.
In addition, he has used his own platform to advocate for better disability representation in mainstream culture and to challenge ableist stereotypes, developing the Fries test to assess works based on their portrayal of disabled characters.
“What keeps me at it is knowing how rare it is to see accurate depictions of the disability experience,” Fries said. Hearing the perspectives of people living, and thriving, with their disabilities can make people feel less alone, he added, and even help them “imagine the possibilities.”
Fries has done that through his own life and work, which spans genres and the globe. He’s carefully treaded trails in the Galapagos Islands, intertwining the history and science of disability with an exploration of his identity. And he’s navigated cobbled German streets for Stumbling over History: Disability and the Holocaust. The deeply personal work-in-progress – Fries is also Jewish – puts a spotlight on the mass murder of 9,000 disabled people by the Nazis at the start of World War II.
Then, knowing that his time to live abroad was limited due to physical issues, Fries applied for a grant and moved to Japan – a society not historically known for embracing diversity. His transformative journey, which shook his assumptions about the country, the body and mortality, became the basis for In the Province of the Gods. “I met many friends with whom I remain close and was welcomed in Japan in a way I haven’t experienced elsewhere.”
Fries’ plans for the future include a new book of essays and work on a three-year grant from the Canadian Council for the Arts, which will support multiple projects, including Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer, the world’s first international exhibit on disability history and art, held in Berlin.
In his work teaching creative writing at Vermont’s Goddard College and giving lectures at schools like Mary Washington, Fries hopes to connect younger disabled writers and audiences to the rich trove of disability history and culture. He also wants those who are nondisabled to understand that disability touches all of our lives, especially as we age.
“When it comes down to it, disability is all about change,” he said, “so the experience is quite universal.”