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Auckland Writers Festival: Rachael King interviews Ivan Coyote

We conclude our week-long series of encounters with guests due to appear at the Auckland Writers Festival as Rachael King interviews the fairly fucken fantastic Ivan Coyote.

Last year, Ivan Coyote stood on stage in front of a sell-out crowd at the WORD Christchurch festival and delivered gut-punching stories of love, gender, body scars, family quirks and encounters with strangers; often with a wink and a comic’s timing, and always with genuine emotion. We should have booked a bigger room. As Ivan left the building that afternoon, I made them promise to come back, and that’s just what they’re doing next week, with shows in Wellington and Christchurch before landing at the Auckland Writers Festival.

Since that first visit, the Canadian writer has published Tomboy Survival Guide, their eleventh book and a collection of stories about growing up in the 1970s as a tomboy: with first crushes, first jobs, and negotiating the world as a non-binary transgender person, or, as Ivan describes it, “plaid on the outside, but with flowers on the inside”, like their new shirt.

Ivan’s work goes a long way to create understanding, but at the same time it is not Ivan’s job to educate the reader on trans issues — rather, understanding is a fortunate side-effect of reading intimate, honest, funny and at times, painful narratives. Ivan’s freedom as a kid and as a young teen playing alongside boys on the sports field, developing crushes on fellow tomboys, gives way to prejudice faced while training as an electrician and protests from religious fundamentalists.

The stories are full of generosity and warmth, but nothing prepares you for seeing Ivan performing them on stage, and the ‘Coyote one-two’ which has you laughing and weeping in the space of one story. In ‘Stronger Than the Skin’ Ivan documents the scars on their body, and how they came to be, starting with the one under their chin and ending with the scars from top surgery to have their breasts removed. Affecting to read; riveting to hear live.

Ivan’s work with youth is legendary — not only in helping transgender and queer kids feel less alone, but in their work addressing issues of bullying. When I emailed Ivan to ask them if they’d answer a few questions, they were typically on the road, about to do three school shows in one day, with 600 kids per show. I was grateful they found the time to answer when they got back home.

When you were here last year, we took the visiting writers to be welcomed to Christchurch by Ngāi Tahu. Tell us about your experience visiting Tuahiwi marae, where all the writers were asked to stand and tell a story, and where I hear you were so popular, you missed the bus.

My experience at Tuahiri marae? Well I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I have Māori relatives, my step-grandma and her children, and several cousins on my dad’s side of the family who married into Māori families, and their kids too of course. But that was my first visit to a marae. My grandmother was so excited for me to be there!! I was deeply moved to meet the elders and be a witness and a guest that day. What an honour! I especially loved when everyone shared their family history and lineage. Whakapapa. As a storyteller who has written extensively about my own family, and who is very close with most of my huge family, this made so much sense to me.

And yeah, I got so into talking to all the old aunties after the lunch that the bus left without me and I had to jump the stone wall (like a jaguar, someone said) and cut the bus off at the pass.

Ivan Coyote performing at WORD Christchurch (Image: Supplied)

I think it was [American critic] John Freeman who described you as a jaguar and I could see it all in my mind.

It was Hal [Wake, director of Vancouver Writers Fest]. I suggested gazelle but he said I was more jaguar. It was about a five foot fence.

I love the family dynamics you portray in your stories. You speak very warmly of your grandmother, who was part Irish and part Roman Catholic who had been brought up being told to lie about who she was, and you’ve written a loving tribute to her called “Kraft Singles for Everyone”. What was your relationship like?

She ruled our family. She was our quiet, meek, hardworking matriarch. I miss her every day. I think of her multiple times a day. She was a huge influence on all of us.

You have written about  the importance of gender neutral toilets and then you gave a TED talk (Why We Need Gender-Neutral Bathrooms) which went viral. What has been the effect on your life of that talk? 

The effect on my life of that talk is that I do not ever want to ever talk about where I use the washroom or how difficult that can be for trans people (especially these days in North America with you-know-who in power and his you-know-whats), ever again in my life. And I have resigned myself to the fact that I will be talking about bathrooms probably for the rest of my life.

You put yourself out there and the internet can be a treacherous place. Do you read the comments? Why or why not?

Mostly no. Not on the real mainstream outlets, like Reddit and The Guardian, etc. The TED website. Ugh. Too much hate and not enough heart left to withstand it all, really. I have enough just to answer hateful emails, Twitter messages, randoms on my Facebook public page, etc. I don’t go looking for it.

Full room at WORD Christchurch (Image: Supplied)

It seems to me that storytelling — opening yourself up to personal stories told in such an engaging way rather than presenting people with facts — can do a lot of work in building empathy between people from different worlds. I certainly saw it in our audience, both in your sessions and in the session where we invited refugees in our community to tell their stories. Why do you think that is? And can these encounters make a difference one story at a time or is the divide just too great?  

I think that stories are the best way we have to explain, to understand, to learn, to teach, to warn, to celebrate, to remember, to honour. I think stories are the best tool we have to change the world.

I think they do make a difference one person and one heart and one mind at a time. I just don’t know if that pace is fast enough to help us right now. The bad stories have so much power and airspace and bandwidth right now.

In “I Wish My Son” a mother writes to you for advice about understanding her transgender son. You say that if you could give her son advice it would be advice about the importance of being a good, feminist man and what that looks like. I have also heard you speak about the importance of chivalry. What were the male role models in your life like?

Male role models or masculine role models would be my first question. I had to unlearn most of what society teaches young girls (because that is what I was socialised to be, as unsuccessful as it was) about being a man in order to find a place to form my own version of myself, my own masculinity that reflected my feminist beliefs and my own experience navigating the world as a non-binary person.

That said, I learned a lot of good things from my dad and my uncles, especially my great Uncle Jack. A couple of teachers, too. Some old tradesmen I apprenticed under when I was an electrician.

Do you ever have the urge to drift back into work as an electrician? Do you get pleasure from rewiring a socket or installing a bathroom fan?

Yes! Yes!, and more yes. I’m writing this in my office at 8pm. I’ve been at it since 8am and I’m not close to done. I never ever feel done with work these days. I just re-wired all the plugs and switches in my girlfriend’s grandmother’s house, and then came home and swapped out a couple of my plugs with brushed silver plugs with USB adaptors built right into them, and I use my electrical knowledge on the road, at venues and recording/playing live music all the time.

Ivan Coyote (Image: Supplied)

Im amazed by the huge well of stories that you have. Are you still finding nuggets of memory to mine and how do you keep the ideas coming?

Knock on wood I’ve always had more ideas than time to think much less write them all down. Knock on wood.

You travel a lot for your work — this will be your third visit to Australasia in less than a year — and you really give yourself over to your performances. How do you look after yourself in order to recover and ready yourself for the next trip? And how do you find the time and headspace to create new work?

This is an ongoing struggle. 25 years of touring is catching up to me. I’m closer to turning fifty than I am 45 now. Much closer. I’m tired all the time. I’m looking at finally getting to the point where I have to sort of look at the road as a way of buying myself time off of the road. I’m taking most of August off. Which means a different kind of work though. Writing. I feel like I could sleep for three weeks right now. I need a vacation but I need to learn what that actually looks like. I used to work electrics in film, pull 80 hour weeks so I could tour when everyone else on the crew went to Mexico. I wrote Tomboy on a very strict schedule. 1000 words a day for 70 days. If I had a gig or skipped a day to go swimming I would have to catch it up. I’m glad I don’t have any employees, because my boss is a bit of an asshole.


Ivan Coyote appears in Wellington on Sunday 14 May, at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season on Tuesday 16 May and the Auckland Writers Festival 18–21 May.

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