Danika reviews Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote

“I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether. There were so many different ways to be beautiful.”

– Michael Cunningham, A Home at the Edge of the World, epigraph to Tomboy Survival Guide

I am in love with this book, as I am in love with Ivan Coyote’s writing in general.

First of all, this is a beautiful book just as an object. I love the cover, and there are lots of small details that really add to the design, including the back cover edge being usable as a ruler. Throughout the book, between essays, are diagrams, including a disassembled stand mixer, knot-tying, and pastry-making.

I love Ivan Coyote’s writing because it’s both easy to read and deeply moving. Most of their stories come out of a rural setting, often up north, and they combine that often harsh environment with a kindness and generosity that underlies all their words. In one story, they talk about being one of only two people in a trades class that wasn’t a cis guy, and the harassment they faced. One day, they came in to find that someone had pissed in their toolbox. They cleaned it before class so no one would see them flinch at this.

In this same class, the same day, a guy asks them for relationship advice. They proceed to give possibly the best relationship advice I’ve ever heard, including detailed instructions on both dinner preparation and cunnilingus. The guy came back the next day and gave them the only hug they’d ever seen him participate in. He was beaming. Coyote absorbs this environment’s cruelty and still offers kindness–kindness that pays off, that is multiplied.

This conviction to remain kind even in a cruel world is inspiring to read. It’s not laid out as a philosophy; it’s just apparent behind every story. In one essay, they talk about forgiving their mother for “squeezing” them into things, recognizing that what they read as shame for all those years was actually fear–and wishing that their mother had named it then.

Once I came out, I stayed out. I got a regrettable pink triangle tattoo on my shoulder and plastered Queer Nation stickers on my leather jacket and went to kiss-in protests at the old coffee shop on Commercial Drive. I wanted to fight homophobia everywhere, in everyone. I wanted to Act Up, to act out, to have sit-ins, and not stand for it anymore.

I wish now I has been kinder to my mother about it all.

Ellen moved into a big house in East Vancouver and started to date a guy who played trombone in her jazz quintet. I told her I couldn’t spend too much time with her and all her straight friends anymore lest I by homogenized by their infectious heterosexuality. My politics didn’t leave anyone, including me, a lot of room for nuance, or grey areas.

I wish I had been kinder to a lot of people about it all, come to think of it.

Queer and trans people are often depicted in media as being perpetually teenagers or twenty-somethings. That’s another reason that I appreciate Ivan Coyote’s place in queer lit. They are in their 40s, which means both that they offer a look into a possible queer future for ourselves (it’s hard to imagine your future when none are depicted in media) and that they offer a more nuanced view of queer politics.

One essay that really stood out to me talked about the response they got from their Slate piece about gender neutral bathrooms, and about the harassment they face in public bathrooms. Their piece got shared at the same time on two sites: one, a pray-away-the-gay site, and the other, a “radical feminist” anti-trans site. The odd thing, they said, was how difficult it was to tell from the hateful emails which site the person was from. These are supposed to extreme opposite ends of the political spectrum, and yet the “radical feminists” and ultra right-wing camp sound almost identical. There is an unfortunate amount of TERFs (trans-exclusionary/trans-exterminatory “radical feminists”) on tumblr, and I’m constantly stumbling on their posts and remarking at how conservative their stances are, with minor vocabulary changes.

Of course, as the title would suggest, most of this collection has to do with gender.

But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. I am not trapped in the wrong body; I am trapped in a world that makes very little space for bodies like mine. I live in a world where public washrooms are a battle ground, where politicians can stand up and be applauded for putting forth an amendment barring me from choosing which gendered bathroom I belong in. I live in a world where my trans sisters are routinely murdered without consequence or justice. I like in a world where trans youth get kicked out onto the street by their parents who think their God is standing behind them as they close their front doors on their own children. Going to the beach is an act of bravery for me. None of this is a battle between me and my own flesh. For me to be free, it is the world that has to change, not trans people.

I think this would be an excellent book to give both trans/butch/gender-nonconforming people, especially teenagers, but also to give to someone who wants to learn about trans politics and lives, but doesn’t know where to start. Coyote is generous and forgiving in their writing, and despite the almost endless opportunities to respond to a situation with rage, there is very little anger in this book.

Basically, I can’t recommend Ivan Coyote’s writing highly enough, and Tomboy Survival Guide is a superb example of it.

Danika reviews Gender Failure by Rae Spoon & Ivan E. Coyote

genderfailure

 

Ivan Coyote is one of my favourite authors, and this is actually the ninth book edited or written by them that I’ve read. Rae Spoon was already one my most listened to musicians before their first book, First Spring Grass Fire blew me away. So it’s no great surprise that I loved this book. I was actually lucky enough to attend one of their shows during the Gender Failure tour. Both Ivan and Rae are fantastic performers, and they played off each other really well. It made me even more eager to pick up the book.

The performance and the book obviously have a lot in common. I liked that Gender Failure attempts to recreate some of the visual aspects, including lots of black-and-white photos, illustrations, and even hand-written lyrics. Many of the stories included were performed during the show, but there are still lots more that weren’t, so it’s definitely worth the read even if you were able to see the performance. I was surprised to see that the first essay included in the collection was the story that I found the most powerful and painful of the show.

Both Rae and Ivan are extremely talented storytellers. Ivan writes very much like they speak, and it feels like someone you know is sitting across the table from you, filling you in on their life since they talked to you last. It’s casual, but very personal, giving the stories a vulnerability that makes the emotional punches even stronger. Ivan and Rae explore different aspects of being a “gender failure”, from their childhoods to their everyday lives now. I especially appreciated Rae’s contrasting of performing as a country singer in both small-town prairie bars and big-city queer clubs, and pointing out that they weren’t more likely to get called the correct pronoun in either place.

I found myself tearing up while reading Gender Failure more than once. It’s emotional, but there’s also a lot to think about here. Rae and Ivan bring up some powerful questions, and examine gender in different ways and contexts. I appreciated that though this is a collection of personal essays by two AFAB “gender failures”, Ivan includes several essays that focus on a trans woman friend of theirs, and the transmisogyny that is different from Ivan’s own experiences with being a “gender failure”. This is an accessible book, even if you haven’t read a lot of trans narratives, but it also has a lot to offer if you’re more familiar. This is a book I would hand to almost anyone, whether it’s to broaden someone’s mind or offer comfort in knowing that you’re not alone.

As a side note, this isn’t a lesbian book, to be clear. I started the Lesbrary to have a queer book blog that wasn’t focused on men, so I’m happy to showcase nonbinary authors as well.

Danika reviews One In Every Crowd by Ivan Coyote

Note: I found this post saved as a draft instead of posted! It was supposed to be posted in September! Oops!

Ivan E. Coyote was one of the first authors I ever recommended on the Lesbrary, and she continues to be one of my favorites. I was, of course, really excited to hear that she was writing a new book, and intrigued by the idea of it being her first young adult book. I was interested to see how this book would differ from her others, since I discovered Coyote’s writing in high school, and I think that her books are well suited for a high school audience any way. As I should have expected, One In Every Crowd does not differ dramatically from Coyote’s other collections. It is, of course, marketed differently, and the stories are well chosen for a young audience. Many of the stories talk about her own childhood, while others feature other teenagers and children she has met, and more are just stories that appeal to everyone, like stories about her family. One well-loved character that gets a lot of space in One In Every Crowd is Francis, the charming, dress-wearing little boy that features in several of Coyote’s books.

Like all of her books, One In Every Crowd is easy to read and, well, comforting. Ivan E. Coyote is often described as a “kitchen table” storyteller, and you definitely get that sense in these stories. It’s as if you’re getting to hear all of uncle Ivan’s stories while gathered around your grandmother’s table. Coyote has a fantastic blend of queer and small-town northerner that makes it seem like those two are not at all opposing. Even re-reading some of these stories for the second or third time, I still found myself tearing up at places or grinning while reading.

Speaking of re-reads, however, that is the only complaint I have with this collection. I am used to many of Coyote’s stories being printed in several collections, so I didn’t expect all the stories to be new, but I didn’t expect the majority of the stories to be ones that had already been included in other collections. (The back cover promises “Comprised of new stories and others culled from previous collections”. Technically, two new stories is plural, but…) Maybe I am just remembering stories that Ivan E. Coyote told at readings that hadn’t actually been printed before, or maybe I’m used to her writing style and incorrectly assume that I’ve read a story before, or possible they’re stories that were in her newspaper column, but by my count, there was only one story included that I didn’t recognize, as well as a reprinted email that was written to Ivan E. Coyote by a teenager. I guess that I assumed that appealing to a new audience would mean new material specifically for that audience, not a repackaging of other material. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think One In Every Crowd is valuable; I think it’s a fantastic collection of some of Coyote’s best stories, and I think it’s a collection and arrangement that really makes sense to introduce a teenager to her writing. I just wish I had known beforehand, so I wasn’t expecting a lot of new material. Again, though, I’m fairly sure reading Ivan E. Coyote’s column and going to readings has something to do with this, so it could be just me personally.

One more note: I don’t know what to think of that email. I’m not sure why it’s included in the collection. It is titled “Letter Fr Grammar Wizard” and includes all of the many grammatical and spelling errors that were in the original email. The email itself is about the email writer’s ideas about how to stop bullying, as well as a little bit about their own experiences with bullying. They are good suggestions, but I didn’t find the email to have anywhere near the same power as Coyote’s stories. I just felt vaguely uncomfortable by the title and the decision to leave in all the errors. It almost seemed mocking, which I know wasn’t the intent, but it still struck a weird chord.

I still would definitely recommend One In Every Crowd, especially as a young person’s introduction to Ivan E. Coyote’s work, but I would caution against expecting a lot of new material from this collection.

Danika reviews Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme edited by Ivan Coyote and Zena Sharman

I’ve been a fan of Ivan Coyote for years, so I had high expectations for this collection. It absolutely delivered.

It’s hard to sum up Persistence other than using its own subtitle. It contains a huge array of different kind of butches and femmes (and a futch, and some switches, and…), embodied by many different genders and sexualities.

The writing it top-notch, and there are a lot of big names:  Ivan Coyote, Jewelle Gomez, S. Bear Bergman, Joan Nestle, Sinclair Sexsmith… The content ranges from academic essays to poem and short stories. Some are incredibly personal, and some are political declarations. I really appreciated the amount of essays that approached how race intersects with butch/femme, and a few that also address class.

If I could guarantee one thing, it’s that at least one entry in this collection will piss you off. There are opinions all over the spectrum in this collection, and there is a lot to be debated. For example: do butch and femme constitute each other, or can you be a butch without a femme and vice versa? Are femmes more privileged by having “passing privilege”, or are they invisibilized, or are people just not looking hard enough for femmes? Is the concept of “butch” too tied to whiteness to be used in an antiracist way? Can other sexualities and genders by butch or femme, or only lesbians? Where do butch and femme fit into the trans* spectrum, or vice versa, or are they unconnected? It is the trans* questions that are particularly divisive. But I think this range is the strength of the collection: it is a good attempt to encapsulate a broad-ranging community that is entirely in flux. And the voices are strong, so even the essays that were actively angering me were still compelling.

I definitely recommend Persistence, even (especially?) if you’re not butch or femme or know very little about butch and femme. It is an important part of the queer community as a whole today, and lesbian history as well. There are quite a few contributors that I will now be seeking out in a longer format.

Lesbrary Review by Danika

Missed Her by Ivan E. Coyote.

Ivan E. Coyote is one of my very favourite queer writers. When giving recommendations for les/bi/etc books, Sarah Waters and Ivan E. Coyote are at the top of the list (though their styles are pretty different). Ivan is often described as a “kitchen table storyteller,” and it’s true. Her stories read as if one of your good friends is relating an anecdote to you, if your friends are really good at telling stories. If you ever get the chance to see Ivan perform in person, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, pick up her books.

Missed Her is a collection of semi-autobiographical stories–Ivan treads the line between memoir and fiction. Some common themes run through the stories, including being queer in a small town. I find this especially interesting, because when the “It Gets Better” project was getting a lot of coverage, there was some criticism about how many of the stories talked about getting out of small towns, and how it didn’t address how rural communities can change, or the positive aspects of them, or even how constantly moving queer people out of rural environments and into urban ones just perpetuates any bigotry in hostile towns (not that anyone has an obligation to stay in a threatening environment, I want to clarify). We’re used to queer stories being set in the big city, so it’s interesting and pertinent to have another narrative. (Ivan currently lives in Vancouver, so it’s not all small town, but growing up in the Yukon made a strong impression on her.)

Ivan presents a different image of being queer in a small town. Her family was supportive, and she appreciates that the peoples she meets in these towns are more likely to simply ask what they’re thinking instead of skirting around the issue. She has a story set in a small town in which a bunch of men gather around so she can teach them how to properly tie a tie. She does still acknowledge the disadvantages and even dangers of some of these small towns, however, especially when she describes trying to find a rural doctor accepting of her gender presentation.

Ivan’s stories have all sorts of variety, though. There’s some heart-breaking ones and some hilarious ones, though usually it’s a bit of both. (Some topics: looking for an old-fashioned barber in Vancouver, teaching memoir-writing to seniors, repeatedly being mistaken for a gay man, stories about her family, and musings on her butch identity and the policing of the label.)

There’s not much more to say than that I highly recommend it!

– Danika