An interview with Ivan Coyote
“Who was I now—woman or man? That question could never be answered as long as those were the only choices; it could never be answered if it had to be asked.”
― Leslie Feinberg,
Ivan Coyote is the award-winning author of eleven books, the creator of four short films, and has released three albums that combine storytelling with music. Ivan is a seasoned stage performer and long-time road dog, and over the last twenty years has become an audience favourite at storytelling, writer’s, film, poetry, and folk music festivals from Anchorage to Amsterdam. The Globe and Mail newspaper called Coyote “a natural-born storyteller” and the Ottawa Xpress once said that “Coyote is to Canadian literature what kd lang is to country music: a beautifully odd fixture.” Ivan often grapples with the complex and intensely personal issues of gender identity in their work, as well as topics such as family, class, social justice and queer liberation, but always with a generous heart, a quick wit, and the nuanced and finely-honed timing of a gifted raconteur. Ivan’s stories remind of us of our own fallible and imperfect humanity while at the same time inspiring us to change the world. Ivan’s 11th book, Tomboy Survival Guide (pictured left), was released in September 2016, by Arsenal Pulp Press.
Poet and radio producer, Mikaila Hanman Siegersma interviews Ivan Coyote about their new book, what they hope for the future, navigating the spoken and written word, and the importance of seeing yourself reflected in the world you move through.
MHS: How do you feel about Tomboy Survival Guide being out the world? Who do you hope is reading it? Is there a certain demographic that you wrote it for, or that you had in mind when you were putting it together?
IC: I feel a lot of joy that Tomboy Survival Guide is finally out in the world. I’ve been working on it since about 2009 or so, maybe even longer. I worked harder on it that I did any of my other 10 books, it feels like. I hope all kinds of folks are reading it, and from the feedback it is getting, I think it is. It was longlisted for a very mainstream non-fiction award. It was just named an American Library Association Stonewall Honor book.
I wrote it because I had nothing at all like it to read when I was a kid. I wrote it because I needed to read it. I don’t think too much about who the audience is going to be during the creative phase, it’s a sure fire one-way trip to a scared and empty page. I only start to consider the reader during the editing phase of the work.
MHS: Can you tell me about the diagrams in the book? And the decisions you went through to have them there beside the stories and text?
IC: When I was a kid I was obsessed with manuals. I loved them, and I still do. I have a huge collection. For me, they were a way into so-called “men’s” skills and knowledge without having to deal with the misogyny and sexism I often faced as a young female-assigned person in male-dominated spaces and environments. I included them as an homage to breaking down those barriers that sexism places in the way for women and girls when they set out to do and learn about things that are not considered female domains. I also included crafts and cooking and other things that are considered women’s work or interests, because that knowledge is of course just as useful and necessary and powerful.
MHS: I find the language you use in Tomboy Survival Guide really accessible. Like, there’s no overly academic or queer/trans theory section that might limit some folks capacity to connect to the narrative. Was this a conscious choice?
IC: I’m an electrician by trade, and an autodidact and I come from a blue collar family. I’m just singing my heart song in the best way I know how with the words that feel most comfortable for me to speak with.
MHS: Can you tell me about the song lyrics/guitar chords in the book? Are these songs that you sang to yourself/others sang/performed to you as gestures of support/solidarity & healing?
IC: The lyrics were written by myself, and the members of the Tomboy Survival Guide live show, and musician and composer Veda Hille. The chords were written by Veda. They are two songs I commissioned from Veda for the live show. I included them because they fit.
MHS: I have seen you perform one of these pieces in Tomboy Survival Guide live in Melbourne (Queer Literary Salon – Melbourne Writer’s Festival at the Bella Union); the one about needing to find your freak family, and that tomboy blood runs in your veins. You have a very particular way of performing your writing, the way it’s delivered feels like real storytelling, a performance unto itself. Can you tell me how you navigate the written word and the spoken word? Do you write a piece and then teach yourself how to perform it? Does it happen differently with each piece?
IC: I’ve been a live storyteller and performer for just as long as I have been a writer. I don’t really separate the two elements of my craft. They are fingers and a thumb on the very same hand. People tell me they can hear my cadence and timing that they know from seeing me live when they read my work on the page, and to me this is a very huge compliment. I hear the musicality of a sentence when I’m writing it down. It’s a lick to me, as much as it is a sentence. It’s about the spaces in between the words just as much as it is about the words. I can’t really explain it any better than that.
MHS: There is a piece in Tomboy Survival Guide called ‘Shouldn’t I Feel Pretty’, and it’s a letter from someone and a series of answers/contemplations from you. At the end of the letter you write that having the financial access to top surgery and later, nice things such as “a well-cut shirt and a real silk tie, and a tailor” made you “feel more confident” more yourself, but that they don’t make you. You go onto to say that the world made you, words made you. Can you speak to this a bit? As a queer poet myself I really resonated with these words.
IC: All I know is that without words and writing and art I would not be here still. I wouldn’t have made it through it all I don’t think. Writing helps me make sense of everything.
MHS: In Tomboy Survival Guide you write about young trans and gender non-conforming people that you are involved with as a teacher/educator. Can you tell me about the importance of doing that work with young people and the necessity of seeing yourself reflected in someone older?
IC: I think we all need to see some kind of grown-up possibilities of ourselves when we are kids. It’s fundamental. How can we imagine ourselves without some examples, some evidence of ourselves in the world? No one ever wants to be the only one of us in the whole wide world. It’s just too unbearably lonely. Like being alone up in space with only the air in your own helmet.
MHS: What is your wish/dream for tomboys/gender non-conforming folks of the future?
IC: An end to all the nonsense. All the violence and misogyny and conformity and fear and control. But I want that for folks of all genders. I’m not just fighting this fight for trans people and gender non-conforming people. I want us all to be free to live up to our very own full human potential. I will accept nothing else but that. The first step is freedom for women and girls all over the world. That’s the foundation of it all for me. Once women and girls are truly free and equal and have dominion over their lives and bodies, then freedom for the rest of us will follow. I truly believe that. Once we rid the world of toxic masculinity, then even men will be able to be all of themselves, and allow themselves to access all the power and potential to be found in the feminine realm as well. It’s going to be beautiful, and I can hardly wait.
“I am grateful that I can now afford a well-cut shirt and a real silk tie, and a tailor. A good haircut once a month. A fancy jacket with these cool elbows on it. I know these things make me lucky. These things make me feel more confident, more myself, but they don’t make me. I made me. This world made me. Struggle and fear and sweat and work and words made me. Did any of it come too late? I don’t think so. Here I am, and I think everything happened when it happened nearly exactly how it needed to go down and now I am here, and I feel handsome and strong, and that, well, that is a beautiful thing.”
— Ivan Coyote, Tomboy Survival Guide, 2016, Arsenal Pulp Press
Mikaila Hanman Siegersma is based in Narrm/Melbourne on Wurundjeri country. They are a poet, editor, radio producer for 3CR and the Marketing and Communications Manager at Australian Poetry.