Transcendence over pain, disability

News Services Editor

The day Kenny Fries was born with twisted, undersized legs and three toes on each foot, his family did not respond with equanimity. His grandmother ran through the hospital corridors screaming, "A freak! A freak! My daughter gave birth to a freak!" His father fainted.

Things went downhill for Fries for many years before he came into his own.

Today, Fries is an award-winning poet, essayist and playwright who stuns audiences with his lyrical, tantalizing narrations of life on the physical and emotional margins of American society. He has become an increasingly visible presence in the national disability and literary communities, employing his talent to challenge cultural assumptions about the disabled.

Fries will be in Buffalo March 26-29. He will present two readings from his work, one at UB and the second at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center. He also will present a writing workshop at UB. The events are free and open to the public.

Fries, whose deformities could not be corrected, is gay, which presented its own set of problems as he grew up. As a child, he was abused by both his father and brother, and emerged into adulthood swaddled in ambiguities of self and memory. These he has explored in his brutally frank memoir, "Body, Remember," moving back and forth in time to assess his recollections with insight, anger, frustration and humor.

As a writer, he looks to the tormented body that he has learned to love as the place where memory begins. "The body doesn't lie," he writes, using the surgical scars on his legs as a kind of roadmap that charts not only a lifetime of exceptional physical and emotional pain, but his transcendence of both.

His other works include "Healing Notebooks," an early and much-praised sequence of 19 elegant, graceful poems about a lover with AIDS. It was collected in "Anesthesia: Poems" (1996, Avocado Press).

He edited the 1997 anthology "Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out" (Plume), which has earned national recognition for what Library Journal calls a "splendid volume of nonfiction, poetry, action and theater by 37 writers who live with disabilities."

The anthology is used by Jim Swan, professor of English, in his graduate course, "Literature and Psychology," in which participants explore bodies and their narratives from cultural, cognitive, biological and medical viewpoints.

Susan Mann-Dolce, a clinical instructor in occupational therapy at UB, was instrumental in bringing Fries to Buffalo, and is a student in Swan's course. "I've been an occupational therapist for 18 years and I've worked with people with all kinds of disabling conditions," said Mann-Dolce, who has a long-standing love of literature. "I've helped develop writing workshops for the deaf and for people with aggressive multiple disabilities," she said, "but when I read Kenny's memoir, I was astonished at the collision of my two worlds.

"Kenny Fries' writings and those of other disabled artists help us to better understand the disabled individual," she said. "They allow us to experience, explore and excavate very deeply their sense of the world. And through their honesty and courage, we can know them in new ways and begin to know ourselves as well."

Fries' visit to Buffalo is sponsored by the UB departments of English and Occupational Therapy; Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center; New Buffalo Graphics; Just Buffalo Literary Center; the UB Committee for the Promotion of Tolerance and Diversity; the UB Office of Disabilities; United Cerebral Palsy Association; the New York State Occupational Therapy Association, Niagara Frontier District, and the Western New York Independent Living Center. This event is co-sponsored by Poets & Writers, Inc., with funds from the New York State Council on the Arts.

Kenny Fries' performance schedule: - Reading, March 26,2 p.m., Student Union Theatre (Room 26), North Campus. It will be followed by a reception, to which the audience is invited.

- Workshop, March 27, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., North Campus, site to be determined. Pre-registration for the writing workshop, which will begin with a light luncheon, is required. Call 829-3141 to register. Registration is limited.

- Reading, March 29, 2 p.m., Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 2495 Main St., rear entrance

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