Ivan E. Coyote is doing what she does best. She's telling a story and this one is about her experiences in public washrooms, the place where her gender is most often questioned.
"I've frightened women, I've been screamed at, I've been hit in the head with purses. Once in the Toronto airport, I got dragged out of the stall with my pants at my ankles. That security guy was lucky I had to make a connecting flight, otherwise I'd have had his job, " she says.
And from her tone, there's no doubt that she would have.
"I have been trying to define my gender my whole life, and I'm beyond it now, " she says. "Ever since I can remember, people have been asking me if I'm a boy or a girl. I have neighbours who think I'm a guy and I don't think I'm lying to them -they see what they see. I don't care about labels or pronouns, I don't identify with 'he' or 'she.' But I don't really like the term 'trans-gendered' either; it sounds like you're moving from one state to another. I just am who I am.
Even the chosen name she writes under reflects her stance between genders. "Ivan "is the name of a character she played at a murder mystery party. Rumour has it that her performance was so memorable, the name stuck. She chose "Coyote" because it's the animal most commonly viewed as cross-gendered in many cultures and one that learns by making mistakes. "E" is her legal middle initial, which she uses to round out the name and make it sound similar to a certain popular cartoon character.
Does her gender identity affect her writing? "It's one thing, anyway. Everything affects your writing, everyone you meet, every book you read. If I were married and had kids, that would affect my writing too. So yes, my relation with my gender is one thing that drives my writing. But it's only one thing. " It's this small-town candor, this ease with who she is, that makes the screaming women swinging their purses in the bathroom seem even more absurd.
A Natural-Born Storyteller
"Kitchen table stories" is how Coyote defines her unique short fictions that deal with growing up in the Yukon and her experiences in her East Vancouver neighbourhood. "I'm still small-town enough to want to know my neighbours. I've lived in my neighbourhood for 11 years-that's a long time. I like the feeling that we all look out for each other. "
Coyote grew up in a family of storytellers. She was born and raised in an Irish Catholic family just outside of Whitehorse.
"I have 14 uncles and 16 aunts. I have 36 first cousins. And now they're all having kids as if they haven't figured out what causes it, and I just can't keep track of the numbers. I mean, I know the kids, just sometimes I forget who they belong to. But that's what we did, we'd tell stories. We would sit in the kitchen and drink black tea with canned evaporated milk and smoke Players Lights and tell each other stories. I'm certainly not the only storyteller in my family; I'm not even the best one. My grandmother's no slouch, and my Uncle Ron can give me a run for my money, too. The only difference is that I write them down. "
Writing down her stories has resulted in two successful collections: Close to Spider Man and more recently, One Man's Trash, both published by Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver. One Man's Trash demonstrates that kitchen table style, the warmth and familiarity that makes Coyote's work so appealing to readers and to those who are fortunate enough to see her perform. She writes the kind of stories lovers tell each other late at night. They are like the personal bits of history offered up in waiting rooms and on long flights, the stories we share with old friends over and over to remind each other of what is important. Coyote has a gift for establishing intimacy with readers: we get the sense that we are being told secrets, let in on important, private things, things that occasionally reveal the teller's weakness and make them less than heroic.
Coyote is also well-known in spoken word literary circles. She performs at oral storytelling events and slam poetry venues, either solo or with her word musical collision band, One Trick Rodeo. A recent tour included stops in New York City and Boston, where she is popular with American LGBT audiences. "American audiences are so different. First, you have to translate things like cigarette brands. Or 'couch'. They say sofa. And they're not that willing to laugh at themselves. " She shakes her head. "I know Americans who are pro-queer, pro-choice, but still supported the war (in Iraq). It's part of the culture. They have to be larger than life. In an American story, the hero runs through a hail of bullets, saves the world and gets the girl. In a Canadian story, he'd get hit in the ass by the bullet, end up in the hospital and his cat would narrate the story. That's what I like about being Canadian. We're okay with just being ourselves. We don't need to be larger than life."
This is Coyote's charm. Whether she's writing about childhood pranks or her attempt to marry her girlfriend in Vegas, Coyote's conversational narrative, her compassion for her characters, and her ability to pace the telling to suit the tale make the reader want to believe that every word is true, that every character is real and that everything happened just as she says. Most of all, it makes readers hope that she'll keep telling us more.