WORD: Work / Sex, with Kate Holden, Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff and Julie Hill

Event_WorkSexIf Ivan E. Coyote did one of the best things a literary festival can do – broke my heart and then put it back together again made better – this session did another: forced me to examine my own unconscious bias and realise I was wrong.

Sex work is something I’ve never really thought much about, which means that most of the ideas I have about sex workers are those I’ve passively absorbed from the society and media around me. And, if there’s one thing feminism has taught me – and as Debbie Stoller said on Friday – it’s that received ideas, particularly about women, need to be carefully rethought. So thank you to Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff, and especially Kate Holden, for prompting me to do some important rethinking.

They were on a panel chaired by Julie Hill. Conversation was lively, intelligent and stimulating (as per the usual very high standard of WORD), and all three women read from their latest books, which I tried in vain to buy from the bookstall afterwards (they had sold out).

Hodgkinson was working as stripper at the same time as editing student magazine Canta while studying. “I found the unregulated vibe of the industry really alluring … Writing is more difficult, it requires an element of emotional truth in order to succeed. With stripping, you can fake that.” For a long time she kept her stripping life secret. “I regret not having owned that part of myself publicly earlier … It annoyed me that people were making judgements about me based on what I did for a job … I was not personally ashamed, that shame got put on me from outside.”

Doff is a New Yorker who told us tales of working the champagne hustle in strip joints and bars in Times Square in the 70s and 80s: “I always wanted to be a hurly burly girl … I probably qualified as a drunk by the time I was 13 or 14.” She spoke unflinchingly of the danger of those times and the brutal rape she suffered that went practically unpunished: her rapist was just banned from the pub for a couple of weeks. “The mafia owned all the strip clubs and gay bars, the places where people couldn’t complain … Women were very, very replaceable … We formed foxhole friendships [with each other], under fire in the front lines of the war.”

Holden, an Australian author, says she was “such a dork” as a teenager, “really intimidated by other humans”. She had “a grand fantasy of doing something radical … Grunge was the making of me because it didn’t matter what you wore, I could just leap in and fake it … I wanted to do something that scared me … Heroin led me into sex work through force of economics.” Holden spoke eloquently about the custodial side of sex work, and how a lot of it involves caring for men who are lonely – and educating them about sex. She also spoke of the consorority: “In some ways it’s a perfect female society … We had such a range of womanhood on any shift [at the brothel] … It was exciting to see women experimenting with different kinds of boldness.”

I was particularly struck by Holden speaking about “the assumptive public discourse about sex workers … Whenever there’s violence against sex workers, the emphasis is always on their work … If plumber comes to your house they don’t need to bring a bodyguard in case you ravenously sexually attack them. It’s so arse about face that we think a sex worker is in charge of not being raped … Sex work is rated as a separate, exotic category of work. We’re not having panels about writers who have also been sandwich makers!”

I felt that tingle in my brain when you hear something and agree with it, but believing that new thing requires you to let go of a pre-existing idea you weren’t even aware you were holding. I felt some old ideas dissolve. I will be tracking down Holden’s book for sure.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Work / Sex
with Kate Holden, Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff, chaired by Julie Hill

Under My Skin: A Memoir of Addiction
by Kate Holden
Published by Skyhorse Publishing
ISBN 9781611457988

Two Decades Naked
by Leigh Hopkinson
Published by Hachette Australia
ISBN 9780733634833

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 Stars Are On Fire, with Tipene O’Regan, Caitlin Doughty, Stephen Daisley, Tusiata Avia, Steve Hely, Ivan E. Coyote and Hollie Fullbrook

Festival Director Rachael King opened this fsampler event to rapturous applause, speaking about the theme of the festival – how can we look after the planet and its people. This was followed by Kim Hill, who was suffering from the condition (not uncommon) of not being John Campbell (who was meant to do the introductions). She managed to find a quirky fact about each performer to announce them, and in no way was inferior to the great Campbell – and I prefer her voice, anyway.

The first performer was Sir Tipene O’Regan. It was an honour to hear one of the first Polynesian creation myths from such a legendary Ngai Tahu figure. His telling included humour, and felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience to savour. “First there was nothing, and then there were darks. All sorts of darks.”

The second performer was Caitlin Doughty, who took us through the routine of cremation. Caitlin is an undertaker, and runs a crematorium. She first got a sense of how many in the audience were intending to be cremated – about 50%, which she says is about average for New Zealand. I now know that it takes about 2 hours to burn a body (at around 815 degrees celcius) to the stage that it is ready to be placed in the Cremulator to be turned to ashes.

Next up was Stephen Daisley, who talked a little about emotions and family. He then, slightly bafflingly, treated us to a sample of an excellent review that Owen Marshall did of Coming Rain on The Spinoff. Daisley seems to me like somebody who can’t quite believe his talent is finally being acknowledged, so I’m happy to see him finding his space in the literary community.

Tusiata Avia performed two poems next: first, one from her new collection Fale Aitu | Spirit House, then one called ‘My body’. I have seen Avia perform many times, and each time I am newly grateful that she shares her talent with us. She is a dynamic reader, who knows how to play her audiences, and how to lose them in the beauty of her language.

Steve Hely was up next: he is an award-winning comic writer for TV shows in the US, including The Office. He talked about a bus trip he took through the Atacama in Chile. Most of the men on the bus were Coal Miners, heading home after long periods away: the attendant on the bus though chose Austenland, as the DVD to help take away some of the boredom. It does seem an odd choice, and I think Hely may have hit the nail on the head when he decided the attendant chose it solely to annoy the miners, who wouldn’t have had a hope of understanding it.

The absolute stand-out for everybody in the audience tonight, I think, was Ivan E. Coyote. They were such a stunning storyteller, that in telling about the females that they were influenced by while growing up made everybody in the audience feel they wanted to have known these great women of the Yukon. Elizabeth Heritage will be reviewing their solo event on Sunday.

The final performer was the talented Hollie Fullbrook aka Tiny Ruins. She also sang about a bus journey, and the space between individual experience.

I now want to see each and every one of these people in action again. Judging from Twitter, the near to sold-out audience was all with me. Get ready for another ticket sales spike, WORD!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Caitlin Doughty is appearing in:
Embracing Death, Sat 27 Aug, 9.30am
Ask a Mortician: Caitlin Doughty, Sun 28 Aug, 2pm
The Nerd Degree, Sun 28 Aug, 5pm

Stephen Daisley is appearing in:
Writing War Stories, Sat 27 Aug, 3.15pm
Coming Rain, Sun 28 Aug, 11am

Tusiata Avia is appearing in:
Hear My Voice, Sat 27 Aug, 5.30pm
Spirit House/ Unity, Sun 28 Aug, 2pm

Steve Hely is appearing in:
How to be a Writer: Steve Hely, Sat 27 Aug, 3.30pm
The Great NZ Crime Debate, Sat 27 Aug, 7.30pm
The State of America, Sun 28 Aug, 12.30pm

Ivan E. Coyote is appearing in:
Taku Kupu Ki Te Ao: My Word to the World, Sat 27 Aug, 1-4pm
Hear My Voice, Sat 27 Aug, 5.30pm
The Storyteller: Ivan E. Coyote, Sun 28 Aug, 11am

Hollie Fullbrook is appearing in:
Workshop: Songwriting with Hollie Fullbrook, Sat 27 Aug, 9.30am
Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?, Sat 27 Aug, 12.30pm
In Love With These Times, Sat 27 Aug, 7.30pm