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Writers Fest: Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide

By Lee Pepper on October 7, 2016

Ivan Coyote is justly known across Canada and, increasingly, internationally, as a teller of tales both poignant and hilarious, that provoke thought and inspire feelings, and that illustrate the complex ways our identities and experiences shape our lives.

They’ll be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival for “Own Self Be True” at 8:30pm on Sunday, October 23rd, and “Respect” on Monday, October 24th.

Their stories recount an experience growing up in the Yukon surrounded by a large extended family, queer life in Vancouver, and navigating the world as a gender failure: someone whose gender identity and presentation can’t be constrained by the gender binary.

As a storyteller, Coyote’s warmth, charisma, and compassion are evident, making their performances not to be missed.

Coyote’s eleventh and most recent book is Tomboy Survival Guide, in which they write about their years as a young butch, and their current life as a “gender-box-defying adult,” and offer advice to others who, likewise, find the gender binary restrictive.

A photo posted by Ivan Coyote (@ivancoyote) on

Apt613 interviewed Ivan Coyote by email.

Apt613: Prior to writing the Tomboy Survival Guide, you’ve performed with an all-tomboy band of the same name and with the all-butch choir Leadfoot. Apart from looking terrific in plaid, I’m curious what are the most interesting or surprising commonalities you’ve discovered talking with these and other tomboys and butches?

Ivan Coyote: I don’t think in terms of commonalities, really, because they can so easily become stereotypes or exclude folks with different lived realities who still identify in some way with those words. I do know most of us shared some experiences, but certainly not all, and what I know is that tomboys and butches really do come from everywhere and from very different places.

You do a lot of work in schools, and I was wondering if and how you think that what it’s like to grow up trans or gender nonconforming, and the survival skills required to do so, is changing?

I can’t say I grew up trans, as I didn’t even hear the word or know of the possibility of being such a thing until I was already pretty much graduated and going to college, really. Not in a way that felt like it could apply to me, anyway. I was born in 1969, In the Yukon, and grew up in a Catholic family in a small town. So I would guess the terminology, the words, the possibilities, the online support and information, all of those would be realities that I could never have even imagined as a kid.

Going into schools these days, all over the country and continent and beyond, sometimes, even, I would say things can be very different for youth, depending on family support, class background, religious issues, rural vs. city, big city versus small town, Canada vs. US, assigned sex, etc. Too many variables here to make any blanket statements.

A lot of your writing has focused on your own life, and has given very intimate looks into your experiences. I was wondering how you decide when NOT to write about an aspect of your life, or what to hold back or keep private?

I just know what is mine and mine only, and what might have merit or resonance or value if I put it into my work. I hold back most of my private life. It might not seem like that to the reader, but that is because they don’t see what isn’t included, of course.

15 shades of grey.
A photo posted by Ivan Coyote (@ivancoyote) on

Over the two events that you’re involved in at the Ottawa Writer’s Festival, you’ll be sharing the stage with Vivek Shraya, Gwen Benaway, and Zoe Whittall. Could you talk about these writers and any work of theirs that’s caught your fancy?

I’m a long-time fan of Zoe Whittall’s, and a new but dedicated devotee to the work of Vivek Shraya, so much so that we are collaborating together on a new project that launches in November called Pretty Good. I have picked up Gwen’s latest and hope to have it read before the Ottawa dates.

What have you read lately that you’ve been excited about?

Zoe Whittall’s new book The Best Kind of People is amazing. I’m about halfway through. I’m also currently enjoying Sarah Schulman’s amazing new non-fiction book Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty to Repair. I’m learning a ton from every page in it.

See Ivan Coyote at the Ottawa Writers Festival for “Own Self Be True” at 8:30pm on Sunday, October 23rd, and “Respect” on Monday, October 24th. For more on their work, visit their website, or find them on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

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