||Community, Country and Kitchen Table
by Joy Parks
Ivan E. Coyote wants three things from her readers, or those fortunate enough to experience a performance of her work.
"I want them to laugh. Then cry. Then think. In that order" she grins.
"Kitchen table stories" is how she defines her unique short fictions that deal with her childhood in the North, her family, her experiences of being queer/transgendered and her life in the close-knit community of the working class east-Vancouver neighbourhood that's been her home for 11 years. "I'm still small-town enough to want to know my neighbours," she smiles. "I like the feeling of being part of community, the fact that we watch out for each other."
Coyote is quick to point to her family as her source of inspiration and influence.
"I grew up with storytellers. I was born and raised in a huge Irish Catholic family just outside of Whitehorse. I have 36 first cousins. And 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 not even the best storyteller in my family. My grandmother's no slouch and my uncle 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. Arsenal's Brian Lam recalls, "Ivan brought her first story collection to us in 1999. We were immediately struck by the purity of her narrative voice-¨honest, unpretentious, and not sagging with the weight of a thousand creative writing lectures. Ivan is first and foremost a storyteller, and anyone who has seen her read, or rather perform, her stories comes away wowed by her utterly beguiling skills."
Coyote is currently working on a novel, a travel video titled "Pee America" and has completed another collection of short fiction. She writes a monthly column for Xtra West and her work also appears on CBC Radio and in many mainstream and alternative publications. At not quite 34, she's a rare entity, a full-time working writer, something she approaches with a mixture of pride and realism.
"I'm a bit of a workaholic," she admits. "Writing full-time is a luxury, but I still have commitments, five or six pieces on the go at any given time, and I have to make deadlines to pay the bills." Coyote is also well known in spoken word literary circles, and often performs at oral storytelling events or slam poetry venues alone or with her word musical collision band "One Trick Rodeo". She often uses these performance as a way to test new work; "A live audience is the best editor anyone can have."
Describing her writing process as "prolonged bouts of complete and utter sloth broken by periods of frantic writing," she says that the short story is a natural form for her way of writing. "I don't have a regular schedule, but when I'm writing, I write, that's all I do and I don't stop until I'm finished. I need to complete what I start; I don't like to let things sit. That's what's good about writing short stories, I get to finish what I start. And too, since I'm always thinking about performing the work, the short story is ideal; you don't have to set up what's happening or explain anything, it's all there."
She adds that, "working on the novel has been completely different. Until now, I've pretty much had the characters and stories made from my life, from what I knew, my own experiences. Now I have to make things up, develop the characters, decide when to reveal this or that aspect. There's more room with a novel; you can stretch out, do things you can't do in a story. It's making me grow as a writer."
Coyote speaks candidly about how her transgender identity affects her work. "It's one thing. Everything effects your writing, everyone you meet, every book you read. But 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'm beyond it now, I don't care about labels, I don't care about pronouns, I don't identify with 'he' or 'she'." But I don't like the term 'transgendered' either; it sounds like you're moving from one state to another. I'm just who I am."
Writing about her transgender experience has made her extremely popular with gay, lesbian and transgender audiences, particularly south of the border. She tours in the US frequently. Still, there's an unrelenting nationalism to her attitude. She's noticed that many Americans who are otherwise champions of progressive issues support a possible war with Iraq. "That mentality is so much a part of the culture. That sense of American heroism. It's in their literature. 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 by the bullet, end up in the hospital and the story would be narrated by the cat in the corner. We don't need to be the hero, we're OK with who we are."
* * *
Reading Ivan E. Coyote's One's Man's Trash is like sharing a long drive with a stranger, the kind of journey that lets you learn as much about yourself as your travelling companion. The stories are intimate, humorous, honest and unheroic; they speak of small experiences and memories that become much larger in the telling. Each one holds some unexpected truth, revealed by the detailed observations that are so much a part of Coyote's distinct style.
Still, what is most magical about these stories is the author's ability to transform ordinary experiences into extraordinary tales; to give great meaning to a visit to the doctor or a childhood prank. The purchase of a new vacuum cleaner opens the door to spiritual change, facial cleansers become vehicles for self-love and acceptance, and Coyote transforms the experience of trying to marry her girlfriend in Vegas into a bizarre mirror of heterosexual privilege. And she does it all with a total lack of pretension and genuine compassion for her characters. Things happen for a reason, people are who they are, and this is enough to make them worthy of being recounted. Coyote doesn't write love stories but she underscores the value of our capacity to love, the importance of human connections and community, the gifts we receive when our lives intersect with the lives of others.
Coyote's prose is confident and solid, and oddly moral. Goodness prevails and even when difficult issues arise or bad things happen, the characters remain open to wonderment and grow stronger from their experience. This is angst-free writing, where the story takes centre- stage and the underlying admiration of the characters rubs off easily on the reader.
One Man's Trash demonstrates Coyote's unique voice and her ability to adapt the short story form for her tales. It proves her talent for invoking an easy intimacy and delivering full, credible character with just a few brief strokes. Ivan E. Coyote entertains us; she moves us and makes us think. And she always leaves us wanting more. ˛