The best experiences at literary festivals are the ones where you can feel the change in the air as the speaker’s imagination and heart pour out of them and into the crowd. It was an honour and a joy to have Ivan E Coyote make a trembling mess of us all with their storytelling for one mesmerising hour.
Lucky me, this was my third time. I first saw Coyote on Friday night at The Stars Are On Fire. Everyone was buzzing about them afterwards. I saw Coyote again yesterday at Hear My Voice, another event with a line-up of excellent performers at which, once again, Coyote shone. Riotous applause echoed through the art gallery theatre. At one point Tusiata Avia said she didn’t realise you could make people laugh and cry at the same time. Coyote replied: “I call it the Coyote one-two”.
Coyote’s session this morning was a sell-out and then some, with staff rushing to bring in extra chairs and people standing at the back. Coyote was introduced by local poet Sophie Rea, and I have to give her props for her te reo pronunciation in her welcome: far too many Pakeha festival chairs either skip te reo entirely or rush through it with mangled vowels (including professional broadcasters who should know a lot better).
Coyote read to us from an upcoming collection that they are making in collaboration with a visual artist. The first story was a letter to their mother Patricia, whose beauty pageant tiara was taken away when the judges discovered she was pregnant with the person who would become Ivan. Coyote remembers “you with your hair in a perfect beehive, even when we were camping”. The letter was tender, funny, and somehow lightly yet intensely carrying enormous emotional weight. There were lines like: “now I am older I have replaced that word shame with others closer to gratitude or pride.” Or: “I don’t remember praying to god to make me a boy, I just wanted things to be different for girls.” These lines – not just their content but their delivery – seared us. Coyote was visibly emotional, pulling out their hankie to blow their nose every so often; saying “I’m not fine; I’m terrified”. Their honesty and bravery moved us to laughter and to tears. What an extraordinary act of generosity and intimacy to be so vulnerable up on stage in a crowded room. The Coyote one-two indeed.
This soul-baring stuff was interspersed with domestic detail. “I inherited your good teeth and love of a clean kitchen … Some people call it OCD, I call it ATD: attention to detail.” Coyote thinks of their mother every time they see the perfect lines of a vacuum-cleaned carpet.
In the second story, “Under My Chin”, Coyote told us the story of every scar on their body, from childhood chicken-pox marks to their mastectomy scars. They spoke about their nipples, how they didn’t see them until two weeks after the surgery and were worried the surgeons had changed them around. (“It really would have bothered me … Maybe it’s the ATD.”) Happily, they are still the right way round, although they have now lost all feeling; “they’re beyond numb”. Coyote said “I used to love my nipples, I just really hated having breasts … I traded the nipples I loved for the chest I needed … I feel like I’m standing in the right shape of me now.”
The third story they told was called “I Wish My Son”. People often write to Coyote to ask for help, and this story began with a letter from the mother of a trans son. “I get these letters I can’t ever be wise enough to answer properly … they haunt me like ghosts.” Coyote delivered line after line that tore right through us: “Most days I bend and stretch in the space I’ve made for myself in this world. But some days the world piles up behind my eyes and on my shoulders and the fear gets in. The truth is all I have to give you.”
Coyote spoke about putting things in their work that they’ve never dared to say to their family. “My mother learned a lot about me from my books … I don’t have the ovaries to tell her to her face.” They spoke with sadness about their family members who refuse to address them as Ivan. “My father does not want to understand.” They try not to let him hurt anything but the surface of them, but it pushes a space between them. “Every day that passes I become more of a stranger to him.”
What struck me particularly was Coyote’s compassion. “It took me 40 years to accept myself. By that math, I give my family another 42 years of practice before I expect them to have it down perfect.” Before including their family members in any of their books, they strictly examine their own motivations, and seek to honour the people they write about. “The basic message is to use your powers for good.”
The letter-writer in “I Wish My Son” spoke about researching trans theory in seeking to understand her son and finding that being trans means your body doesn’t match your brain. Coyote has never related to that theory. “It’s a handy narrative that puts responsibility onto trans people [rather than society] … My day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body … [but stem from being] trapped in world that makes very little spaces for bodies like mine. For me to be free, it’s the world that needs to change, not trans people.” Huge round of applause.
When Rea got back up on stage to interview Coyote, she was wiping away tears. She certainly wasn’t the only one. Rea asked Coyote about their work in schools. They told another story – another Coyote story, which means it was hilarious & tragic & warm, and provoking of thoughts and of many feelings – about turning up at a school to do an anti-bullying show. They found not only a protest from religious fundamentalists but also a counter-protest from the student gay-straight alliance group, who had had a bake sale to raise funds to get t-shirts printed with Coyote’s face on them. (Coyote called them “angry rainbow children”.) After their show, a kid wearing a Boy George t-shirt said to them accusingly: “you didn’t say one single gay thing at all!”. This got a huge laugh. Coyote has hope for the next generation: “I know we’re going to hell in a handbasket, but we’re in good hands.”
For the end of the session Coyote treated us to some more of the literary doritos (very short stories) they had performed at Hear My Voice. They said they had developed these for literary festivals so that the last thing the audience heard wasn’t some rambling ‘question’ (actually challenge) from some random guy. “No, I want to end it.” They did, and we cheered and cheered. A standing ovation seemed like such a meagre gift in return for Coyote’s generosity. Thank you Ivan. Please come back to Aotearoa again soon. Kei te aroha au ki a koe.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
One in Every Crowd: Stories by Ivan E. Coyote
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press
Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme
by Ivan E. Coyote, edited by Zena Sharman
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I Missed Her
by Ivan E. Coyote
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press