WORD: The Storyteller – Ivan E. Coyote

ivan003-copyThe 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

The Storyteller: Ivan E Coyote

One in Every Crowd: Stories by Ivan E. Coyote
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press
ISBN 9781551524597

Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme
by Ivan E. Coyote, edited by Zena Sharman
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press
ISBN 9781551523972

I Missed Her
by Ivan E. Coyote
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press
ISBN  9781551523712

WORD: The Spinoff After Dark: Toby Manhire, Alex Casey and Duncan Greive

Event_The-Spinoff-after-DarkI arrived at this session in a bit of daze, having had my head exploded by Hear My Voice, two hours of incendiary poetry and storytelling from a group of WORD Christchurch’s most outspoken writers. One of my favourite things about literary festivals is discovering new writers to love, both from Aotearoa and overseas, and at Hear My Voice I found three: Sophie Rea, Daisy Speaks, and Ivan E. Coyote. As well as being wonderful writers they were also exceptional performers. Catch them if you can.

The Spinoff After Dark was a very relaxed session – and a good thing too, because by this point in the day after Busted, Speaking Out and Hear My Voice, I was in danger of Feelings Overload. Toby Manhire, Alex Casey, and Duncan Greive from The Spinoff sat with some mics in a cafe and nattered to us. They did mini-interviews, which were quite fun, starting with comedy writer Steve Hely: “Everything I know about Max Key, I learned from Alex Casey”. I’m not sure why they were talking about Max Key, or why Casey had been emailing Hely so much information about him: one of the downsides of this session is that it assumed a lot of shared knowledge on the part of the audience (which I didn’t always have), and relied often on in-jokes. But the participants were quick-witted and the mood good-humoured, so it was generally entertaining.

The second guest hauled out of the audience was WORD Literary Director Rachael King. Casey was asking everyone who their Fight for Life opponent would be: it had to be someone equivalent in your field. King chose Auckland Writers Festival Director Anne O’Brien: “I lift weights, so she’d be down in the first round.” (Hely had chosen Max Key.)

The third guest was Joe Bennett, but I’m afraid I can’t report on what he said because all it says in my notes is “wow, Joe Bennett is really goddam annoying”. I think he said he would fight Steve Braunias.

Next up was author Paula Morris. She reported on her travels in Latvia, where you have to go everywhere by bus and it’s really hot on the buses, but people get annoyed with you if you take off your coat. “That’s just one of the many interesting things I know and it’s why travel is important.” She would fight Selina Tusitala Marsh, because she’s weak from where Morris pulled Marsh’s neck muscle while brushing her hair.

The fifth interviewee was illustrator Toby Morris (no relation to Paula); the other half (with Manhire) of ‘The Pencilsword‘. They spoke about the trials of being called Toby. Morris said his father-in-law referred to him as Tony in his speech at his (Toby’s) (I mean Morris) (Toby Morris not Paula) (god, sorry) wedding. He would fight Sam Scott from the Phoenix Foundation.

Then RNZ producer Mark Cubey was called to the stage. He said he was amazed there aren’t more Spinoffs: fantastic, fun, crazy, good websites. In fact, he said, “I think there’s room for a spinoff of The Spinoff, you could call it The Spunoff.” Greive looked horrified. “No one do that!”

Manhire then invited celebrated journalist Rebecca Macfie to come up and be mini-interviewed. This was a complete surprise to her and it took Manhire a while to persuade her. “I’m totally unfunny, I’m the wrong person to be doing this,” Macfie warned. Manhire asked her whether Pike River was over. “Shit no. How can it be finished when there’s no accountability, no bodies, no justice.” Hear, hear.

The final guest was blogger Giovanni Tiso. He was asked how come he’s so good at blogging when English is his second language, after Italian. He said “writing is a second language anyway. You are taught rhetoric if you’re taught well at school.” (I think Italian schools must be better than ours because I don’t remember being taught that?). Casey was asking everyone what they snacked on while writing. He said he writes his blogs on Monday nights so there are no snacks (cue much consternation). He would fight Karl du Fresne.

The panel then answered questions people had tweeted in, and from the audience. Greive on sports journalism: “Everyone got into bad habits a hundred years ago and that’s why a lot of things are bad.” Casey on The Bachelor: “When you apply an international franchise here you see the weirdness of New Zealand, and that’s why I like it”. She ghostwrote the text of Jamie Curry’s (heavily illustrated) book in a couple of days.

Eventually the panellists resorted to interviewing each other. Manhire would fight Duncan Garner. Greive would fight Marcus Stickley because The Wireless won best website at the Canon media awards, and “I will probably carry that resentment to my grave”. Casey does not recommend K Bar chocolate.

I wanted to tell Casey how much I admired her outspokenly feminist work at The Spinoff but such earnestness seemed out of place in amongst light-hearted discussion of snacks. I confined myself to live-tweeting and wine. Bring on WORD Sunday!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

The Spinoff After Dark
with Toby Manhire, Alex Casey and Duncan Greive

Alex Casey appears today in:
The Great Divide?, Sun 28 Aug, 3.30pm

Toby Manhire appears today in:
Giving Them Hell: Political Cartoons
, (Chair) Sun 28 Aug, 2pm

Duncan Greive appears today in:
Reimagining Journalism, Sun 28 Aug, 5pm