Ripple Effects 3.5: Studying Abroad Has Been Indispensable

Kenny standing on bridge with a friend overlooking a river and rolling green hills in the background.

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Justin Harford (JH): Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities abroad, brought to you by the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, a project sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by Mobility International USA

We know that international exchange  contributes to personal  and professional development. It can enhance one's confidence and skill sets, broaden one's perspective and shape one's  educational path. It can also influence job choices and employment opportunities. Let’s find out how. For this season of Ripple Effects, we will hear stories from international exchange alumni with disabilities and how their programs relate to their careers. This is part of a new initiative from the clearinghouse called, #LifeAfterExchange.

I’m Justin Harford, a Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA and your host for Ripple Effects.

Kenny Fries is an award-winning author and teachers in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Goddard College in Vermont. Having completed two Fulbright Scholar programs in Japan and Germany has given him a multicultural basis for exploring issues of disability in modern culture. His latest book, In the Province of the Gods, in which he explores his times as a disabled foreigner in Japan, was released in September 2017.

JH: Kenny a  lot of people  may know about some of your research and writing and, you are a dual Fulbrighter… You did Germany and Japan. I wonder though if you can tell us about where your passion and excitement for international exchange first started?

Kenny Fries (KF): Sure… Probably when I was watching the Olympics when I was a young kid. I became fascinated with the places where the Olympics were held, and actually when I started to travel I went to places that held Olympics… Especially the winter olympics. But then I went abroad to study in London and Cambridge for a year as an undergrad, so that's where I think it really was activated… Where it became active.

JH: Could you tell us more about that experience… And what was that like?

KF: Oh it was incredible. I was 19 years old and in a place I'd never been before, albeit in a place that spoke English… So that made it easy. And it just opened up so many horizons for me… my tutor in Cambridge was just fantastic, and if I point out anything that led me to be a writer I think it was that year that I spent when I was in London.

JH: Already at a young age your international exchange was influencing where you were going… You say you were at Cambridge?

KF: Yes. Yes I was in London, but the tutor that I started working with was in Cambridge, so I would go up there once a week or so.

JH: you have two Fulbrights in Japan… That was quite an experience for you. Why don’t you tell us about your Fulbright in Japan and those things that happened… The professional and personal. It was a pretty eventful time.

KF: Yes it sure was. My Fulbright was not the first time that I went to Japan. I first went three years earlier as a (inaudible) of the  US Japan Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, so that's kind of laid ground for my returning three years on the Fulbright. Both Fulbright's have been kind of odd because I had some experience of the country before I got there, so I was hitting the ground running. You know I had things in place before I got there to live… Connections… That sort of thing. But Japan definitely change my life. I mean it led to my book that is coming out in September… Province of the Gods… It led to a poem sequence in regards to Japan which had just been published as a small book of poems… It had also been a song cycle. I worked with this singer Mika Kimula on this for many years, and it also led to my being commissioned to write the libretto for an opera… The opera called the Memory Stone which premiered in 2013. So for decades my work was really centered on Japan, and it's all because I went abroad to live there. It wouldn't have happened in any other way.

JH: I was reading in one interview that you gave a while back… I think it was for a German publication… You were talking about how a lot of your writing is kind of in the memoir style, and yet then you're talking about here there are some pieces that sound like they were covering a more broad base… And I was kind of curious if you could sort of describe overall since that time kind of what has guided your writing style. How would you describe your writing style?

KF: Well I actually started as a playwright… My graduate degree was in theater. And then I published poems, and I had an agent as a poet… Don't ask how that happened... it's rare and kind of ridiculous,… But my agent was trying to sell a book of poems and the editor wrote back and asked if I would want to turn the material into a memoir. So that is what I did. And I started to basically write nonfiction.

The works are memoir based. They encompass things much larger than just my life. My book before this one was the History of My Shoes in the Evolution of Darwin's Theory where I look at Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, and the Theory of Natural Selection… How it relates to disability. I'm using my shoes as a metaphor for adaptation variation, and similarly though In the Province of the Gods might be my most personal book… It really is a look at how different cultures look at mortality and death, and so that's… So while I use my own story as the basis, my work does branch out into other things. My current book that I am working on now… Stumbling Over History ["1] … Looks at disability in Germany… Both past and present… With an emphasis on the history of what happened during the Nazi era  before  and the killing of disabled people. So I use my life as a narrative device… But the work always encompasses something way… Way larger than that.

JH: Like disability… Like larger disability questions? Questions of life and death and disability?

KF: Yes I mean most of my work is centered around disability and the body… Or my intersecting identities as being gay, Jewish and disabled. So, most of the focus is on that.

JH: It sounds like though… Kind of going from your experience in Japan to Germany you kind of had a different experience of disability and maybe that kind of influenced the direction that now your writing is taking?

KF: Well I think… I think the difference is basically that most disability history isn't uncovered. It's still covered and not talked about not widely known. I think that disability in Japan is especially hidden. Whereas in Germany though it is still hidden, and not as known. It's more public.

JH: Certain aspects are more public?

KF: Yeah… I mean there's no history of the state killing disabled people in Japan.*Laughs*so I think that's a very big difference, and also the way people deal with difference in Japan is more I would say subtle, then it is in Germany. So, in Japan my experience was basically that people treated me strangely because I was a foreigner, because I was basically Caucasian. And not because I was disabled. Now this is not to say that Japanese people with disabilities or people that have other disabilities than I have would be treated that way but that's the way I was treated. And so  in Germany it's different. I'm a new wheelchair user I've only been using a wheelchair since 2009, when I dislocated my right kneecap, and Berlin was pretty much the first city where I used the wheelchair more than I have other places, so I noticed more invisibility, more staring  in Germany than I did in Japan, which is surprising. Because in a lot of Asian cultures like in Chinese culture I have found that being disabled was a constant visual issue. Staring… People stop me that sort of thing. So there is a difference, but I didn't experience much of that in Japan.

JH: I wonder if you could offer any other reflections on how your times abroad have influenced your work as a writer and researcher and I think you also teach as well.

KF: Yes… Yes I do teach. I've learned a lot. One thing I've learned abroad is that certain things I take for granted in the way of looking at disability in the United States doesn't translate to being abroad.

JH: Right

KF: For example in Japan it's a very homogenous culture. In the US when I talk about disability I make references to African-Americans… I might say like the whole idea of separate but equal, and you wouldn't let, in this day and age… Hopefully wouldn't relegate African-Americans to using the back door whereas with disabled people we do. In Japan that doesn't register at all. And I realized that pretty quickly. And I've had to change…

JH: So there’s not really an opportunity to compare that

KF: Yes will there are cultures that are as diverse as the United States, but what I figured in Japan pretty quickly was that because it's such an elderly society, one of the most elder societies in the world… I was able to make that comparison and to use access and stuff ... you know what's good for disabled people is good for the elderly. So I learned that the things that I look at with  disability in the states… it's contextual, which goes back to my Darwin research, because we think of the survival of the fittest as just the survival of the fittest, and that's not the correct phrase. The full phrase is survival of the fittest in a particular environment, and it's also a phrase that Darwin didn't coin. So it was coined by someone else and he didn't use it until much later in the third edition of On the Origin of Species. So it's really a contextual thing, and it took my time in Japan to really cement that for me, and that's something that I wouldn't have gotten by just staying at home.

JH: I think that's so important especially for your work and for the larger projects that so many of us have as far as promoting international development and disability rights around the world. Sometimes we can approach it like one-size-fits-all by accident… No one does it on purpose… But sometimes we overlook other kind of maybe more unique opportunities like the Japanese respect for elders.

KF: Yes the other thing is that also what happened in Japan that is interesting is that I also got involved in things I never thought of before. There was a conference I was invited to on international development and disability, and that is something I would've never thought of… You know… And it was only because I was invited to give a talk there while I was in Japan that I was able to learn about the issues about international development… How it affects disabled people and I would've never known that. So yes… And the word is indispensable… Studying abroad has been indispensable to so many aspects of my life.

JH: Awesome! In the Province of the Gods is out now and thank you so much for your time Kenny.

KF: Okay thanks Justin.

JH: For up-to-date information on the Fulbright program contact the US Department of State’s Bureau of educational and cultural affairs at

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