Ivan Coyote: Tomboy Survival Guide and beyond

Poet and teacher Rachel O’Neill interviews author and storyteller Ivan Coyote ahead of their appearance this May in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Coyote will be at the Schools Days at the Auckland Writers Festival. Their latest book, Tomboy Survival Guide, is suitable for teens, and they frequently tour North America speaking to schools.

Ivan Coyote is the award-winning author of eleven books, and appears at storytelling, writers’, film, poetry, and folk music festivals across the globe. I was lucky enough to see Ivan at the 2016 WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival where they performed several of the stories that appear in Tomboy Survival Guide.

As a warm-up to even describing how magical that experience was for me (and clearly everyone in the room), I headed to the dictionary to look up ‘storyteller’. The definition is quite simply ‘a person who tells stories’. The thesaurus opens things up a bit: ‘spinner of yarns’, ‘raconteuse’ and my favourite, ‘fabulist’. Ivan tells stories, and every other nuanced option the thesaurus presents, and more.

I asked Ivan Coyote a few questions about Tomboy Survival Guide and their work in the lead up to their appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival.

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Ivan Coyote

Rachel O’Neill: Tomboy Survival Guide is full of tenderness, the raw intimacy of family life, the hardships and the pleasures of growing up, no matter how old we are. There are illustrated diagrams of knots and toasters, songs, anecdotes and stories. As a non-binary person, I saw ‘How to build your own unicorn trap’ in the contents page and thought, Wow, it’s so fantastic that young people will read this book. I’m 33 and no one told me how to catch a unicorn when I was growing up. For this reason, I was 33 and 6 and 12 and 24 reading your book. I was so many ages and versions of myself, so many confusions and temperaments.

I like that memoir is really an invitation to the reader, that it acknowledges all the different realities of people that will come to the story of you, the writer, and that the invitation to connect remains unwavering. What does it mean for you to write from experience?

Ivan Coyote: I guess for me the transformative power of personal narrative comes from the process of one human speaking from the throat and guts and heart of life, and translating that story somehow into a form where someone else can read or hear or watch or see it and have it resonate and shake some version of that story in the heart and throat and guts of the listener. Not always in a ‘I know that feeling or experience exactly because I lived it’ way, though that can happen, but also in a way that allows the listener or witness into that story through their own humanity, or weakness, or strength, or dreams. I guess, in a way, a good story makes nearly anyone feel a kinship of a sort, or can turn an unknown into something recognisable.

A good story makes nearly anyone feel a kinship of a sort, or can turn an unknown into something recognisable.

R: In one of your stories in Tomboy Survival Guide you talk about how people often ask you what it feels like to ‘write such vulnerable things’. This implies you make yourself vulnerable by speaking. You say instead, ‘My silence is what makes me vulnerable’. I guess silence can be like a giant sign that is also shouting ‘damaged connection’. I don’t mean damaged person, just that the silence is telling us something important. There’s something wrong with the power or the charge or the connecting wires. And we’ve been trained to ignore the danger of damaged connections. And living is connecting.

Storytelling can be a considered kind of non-silence, or a repairing or reclaiming of voice, or a chance to push cultures or campfires of silence to face up to what they really are. What does being a storyteller mean to you? Is there a difference between being a storyteller and being a writer?

I: This is a giant question in many ways, and also a simple one. I have always ‘told’ the stories I write. This is my process. It is not the path of all writers, I know that some writers and authors don’t much enjoy the public speaking or performing aspects of the writing life. For me, I began telling stories live on little stages all over before I ever published anything. In fact, the first pieces I ever published I had to ‘transcribe’ from pieces I only had in my memory through practicing for a live performance. That said, not every written thing translates or is meant for a live performance context, nor would it do it full justice to the listener.

I began telling stories live on little stages all over before I ever published anything.

R: There is so much humour in this book. I was laughing all kinds of laughs. Does humour come quite naturally to you? Do you work at it? Is it just the best way of being serious?

I: I think, for me, it’s a very good way of being serious. I often appear (whether I know it or not at the time) on stages in from of people who have to confront their ‘-isms’ just to allow themselves to hear me. Making somebody laugh is a very effective and generous way of getting them to listen and relax enough to quiet their homo- or trans- or whatever-phobia long enough to be able to take in the humanity of the story. It’s also less traumatising and exhausting for me as a performer, and more fun all around for everyone. But even that makes it sound calculated and technical. I just like humour. I see the world like this. It is my medicine, too, and my therapy and my way of coping.

R: My mum is a primary school teacher. I come from a family of teachers on her side. I recently started teaching first and second year university students. I’m constantly amazed with their work, their thinking and perspective; I learn so much from them. I also learn heaps from young people in the lgbt communities here. I’m inspired by their articulateness, commitment and caring. What impact does working with young people of all ages have on you?

I: It’s a vital and necessary and critical part of my work. I travel extensively and one of the things I do out there is do a storytelling-driven anti-bullying show in middle and high schools. I meet and tell stories to thousands of kids some weeks, because I often do gymnasium or theatre crowds of 600–1,100 youth at a time. I also teach workshops and do creative arts programming with them.

I am a living breathing surviving trans person, and for some of these kids that is a huge thing.

Ask any teacher worth their salt and they will all tell you is the only way to teach youth is to constantly listen and learn back from them too, so there is that aspect of the work. Also, because of being trans/non-binary myself and out and having written and published many books over the years now that include my version of stories about this identity, I am a living breathing surviving trans person, and for some of these kids that is a huge thing. For some kids I am the first trans person they have met besides maybe themselves.

So whenever the road gets rough I remember that kid out there alone struggling to get through Grade 8, and I pick up my ass and get back out there and represent.

R: I’ve been thinking a bit about privacy lately. How we have to fight for and advocate for basic kinds of privacy. At the same time, there’s the silence problem. Visibility is one way we can be heard, to remind each other that we’re not alone, that we’re not all the same, that we’re humans doing human things. This can involve giving up our privacy at times in an environment where privacy is scarce.

Is there a tension for you between privacy and visibility? How do you navigate the pleasures and pressures of this through your life and work?

I: Yes, yes and more yes.

It’s a constant navigation. There are some things I do not ever write much about, not for public consumption anyway. There are large parts of my life that I keep to myself, as a solace and balance to/for the hyper-public profile of tough conversations I have about other usually private things: my relationship to my body, where I pee when out in public, top surgery, my relationship with my parents and family, for example.

There are some things I do not ever write much about, not for public consumption anyway.

I have made conscious decisions to have public conversations about these things because I feel it is necessary to do the work I think needs to be done to fight for our right as trans and non-binary people in a stuffed-up Trump era in today’s world, but there is a cost to this, for all academics, activists, artists, writers, etc who talk about or address personal experience with difficult or complex or contentious topics.

R: A local group, RainbowYOUTH, conducted a health and wellbeing survey of 8,500 New Zealand secondary school students in 2012 and discovered that ‘one in five transgender students had attempted suicide in the last year’. Statistics like this are horrifying. They help us see the true cost of a world that doesn’t support the health and wellbeing of all young people. Statistics can feel cold, too, by reducing the resilience, laughter, imaginations and multitude of experiences of people to numbers.

Elizabeth Kerekere created a fantastic resource here called ‘Takatāpui Part of the Family’. Takatāpui is a traditional Māori term meaning ‘intimate companion of the same sex.’ It has been reclaimed to embrace all Māori who identify with diverse genders and sexualities such as whakawāhine, tangata ira tāne, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer. All of these and more are included within Rainbow communities. The volume, its indigenous perspective, is so powerful because it reminds me, as a pākehā, that sexuality and gender contribute to our health and wellbeing in so many core ways. It reminds me that no one has a right to damage another’s mana. Mana is to be nurtured in ourselves and others.

In one of your stories you write about how gender dysphoria is less about ‘being in the wrong body’ and more about being in the wrong world. How can imagination and storytelling help us with the modest task of reshaping the world? Who or what inspires you in this regard?

I: For me, imagination and storytelling have always been and continue to be THE ONLY WAY THROUGH for me. They are the best tools I have to begin the very giant and lifelong task of taking apart, dismantling, recreating and rebuilding the world I want future generations to inherit.

Imagination and storytelling have always been and continue to be THE ONLY WAY THROUGH for me.

R: You are involved with music, performance, film and collaboration with artists. What do you enjoy about moving between different forms and collaborating?

I: I enjoy the constant challenge and the new perspectives and possibilities that collaboration brings to the craft. Harmony. Dissonance. Tension. Peace. Struggle. Resolution. Solos and back to the one chord. It’s all in there.

R: What’s the best advice you can give a unicorn that wants to ‘trap’ another unicorns? Are the rules the same as for, say, humans?

I: Well, if you read the whole story about how to build my version of a unicorn trap, you will find it’s not actually any kind of a trap at all. It’s just a method of making a space inviting and safe enough that the unicorn wants to spend a little time with you and your friends for a little while before it goes back to its own dimension. You can read into that whatever advice works for you.

Ivan Coyote is in Auckland for the Auckland Writers Festival. They will also be in Wellington, and in Christchurch for the WORD Autumn Festival.

Tomboy Survival Guide

By Ivan Coyote

Published by Arsenal Pulp Press

RRP: $38.00

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Rachel O'Neill
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Rachel O’Neill is a filmmaker, writer and artist based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa. She blogs here.