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August 3, 2021

Telling Stories – Ivan Coyote

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Ivan Coyote, a natural-born storyteller
Ivan Coyote, a natural-born storyteller

Ivan Coyote is the award-winning author of eleven books, the creator of four short films, and has released three albums that combine storytelling with music.

A natural-born storyteller, ‘Coyote is to Canadian literature what KD Lang is to country music: a beautifully odd fixture’ (Ottawa Express), and often grapples with the complex and intensely personal issues of gender identity as well as family, class and queer liberation.

How does gender identity feature in your work?

It’s a memoir, and I am a trans person, so it features pretty prominently, I guess. That said, this is my favourite quote by a reviewer so far: ‘Coyote resists reading trans-ness in hindsight, refuses to centre trans-ness as the single primary concern in trans lives and, in this regard, is quietly radical. Late in the reading, I realised this is a book about family. An emotionally powerful memoir by a great storyteller about normal life.’ Jade Colbert, The Globe and Mail, Nov 2016.

To me, this reader ‘gets it’. Of course gender identity features in my book, as does the gender identity of nearly every character in any book; we just don’t notice it as much when that character is not trans.

It seems our binary hyper-masculine/feminine gender constructs are rooted in our pronouns. In our very language. What role does language play in gender oppression and how does moving it forward change the way we think or behave? Do you like they? Or do we need new words?

Our English language is full of gender and gender oppression. It’s written right into it. It’s nearly impossible to speak or write about anyone without using a gendered pronoun, almost every sentence. This wouldn’t matter as much if we didn’t live in a patriarchy. If women and men and trans people all had equal access to education, freedom, contraception, dignity, fair wages, healthcare, justice, safe streets… But that is not the world we live in, so gendering people and not valuing women and trans people as much as men is also a way of deciding who has access to what privilege and capital. Look up the etymology of words such as hysterical, testify, or pudendum. Words constructed of misogyny. Plain and simple.

Yes, I love the gender-neutral pronoun they. I searched long and hard inside myself and in the world for a word like they. And yes, of course we need new words, too. Needing new words for things just means we are growing.

Storytelling has made a popular resurgence, with people flocking to story nights all around the world to hear what a writer has to say. What is the role of story, do you think, for human beings? Why is it important?

I think stories are our only means of understanding each other. The best way to teach, to learn, to instruct, to remember, to dream, to warn, to celebrate and to honour. To apologise, to make peace.

What is the essence of powerful  storytelling for you?

Truth. Honesty. Verity. Bravery. Candour.

What should we expect of your appearance in Byron Bay? 

I’m going to tell some stories. I haven’t decided which just yet. The first task of a good storyteller is to find the perfect story for that moment, that space, that crowd. So I will have plenty of options in my pocket.

The Byron Writers Festival presents Ivan Coyote on Wednesday 31 May at the Byron Theatre, straight after Susan Faludi’s conversation with Zacharey Jane. Session one: 6pm; Session two: 7.45pm. Tickets: Members: $30 single session / $40 both sessions. Non-members: $35 single session / $45 both sessions. Bookings: byronwritersfestival.com or 6685 5115. Food will be available for purchase onsite between sessions.

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