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Exploring the art of prose

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Author: Kenny Fries


Author’s Note

When writing “Stumbling over History,” some form of which will probably be part of my forthcoming book Stumbling over History: Disability and the Holocaust, I was confronted by many craft challenges. Though the essay, and the book, focuses on a part of disability history that is not as well known as it should be, it also is about how this history resonates today. This is why I chose to forefront my particular discovery of and journey with this history, often describing the voice of the work as “history as memoir.”

Balancing the history with the “I” was an important concern. So, why not just write a straightforward history? In fact, a well-known editor at a well-known NYC publisher suggested this. But the “I” seemed crucial to include for a history that has no survivors, a history pieced together predominantly by medical records and perpetrator testimony. The erasure of disabled people and disability history is an urgent absence. This history involves the mass murder of 300,000. To end the silencing of these voices, the narrative had to be impacted by the experience of the narrator.

I also had to find ways to activate the historical information, embedding it into a personal and collective narrative as much as possible. Throughout, I am guided by my role as a “vicarious witness,” which memory studies scholar Susanne C. Knittel describes as not “an act of speaking for and thus appropriating the memory and story of someone else but rather an attempt to bridge the silence through narrative means.” “Stumbling over History,” and Stumbling over History, is my way of bridging the silence, of keeping alive something that is too often forgotten.

 


KENNY FRIES is the author of In the Province of the Gods (Creative Capital Literature Award); The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory (Outstanding Book Award, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights); and Body, Remember: A Memoir. He edited Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out and was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera to write the libretto for The Memory Stone. His books of poems include In the Gardens of JapanDesert Walking, and Anesthesia. His work has appeared in numerous places including The New York TimesGrantaThe BelieverKyoto JournalLos Angeles Review of Books, and on Lit Hub. He created the Fries Test for disability representation in literature and film, and was the Disability Beat columnist for How We Get to Next. Twice a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany), he received a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Arts and Literary Arts Fellowship and was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan/US Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is currently a DAICOR Fellow, a program on diverse and inclusive transatlantic public remembrance funded by Cultural Vistas and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and has received grants from the DAAD (German Academic Exchange), Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and Toronto Arts Council. His current work in progress is Stumbling over History: Disability and the Holocaust, excerpts of which form the basis of his video series What Happened Here in the Summer of 1940?. kennyfries.com