Ivan Coyote: On Queer Youth, Spoken Word, and the Writing Life
Author: Paige Cohen
October 8, 2012
“I think it is definitely easier to come out, but not necessarily easier to be out. There are more queer role models out there, for sure, but we have to ask ourselves if the role models presented to us by popular culture are realistic ones…”
Born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Ivan Coyote is an award-winning author of eight books, three CDs, and four short films, and is an acclaimed spoken word performer.
Coyote has been live-storytelling since 1990 and has performed in cities from Amsterdam to New York—including the 2012 tour of Gender Failure with author/musician Rae Spoon, as well as anti-bullying shows in high schools around the globe. In 2008 Coyote’s short story collection The Slow Fix was shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award, and more recently Coyote co-edited the Lambda Award-nominated anthology Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme alongside Zena Sherman.
Coyote’s stories (both on and off the page) have been described as the “good old-fashioned kitchen table” kind and are a brilliant combination of funny, surprising, and painful, but most of all, honest in a way that renders each narrative beautiful. This year, Arsenal Pulp Press released Ivan’s newest collection of stories, One in Every Crowd, a book written specifically for queer youth. Ivan was kind enough to speak with the Lambda Literary Review about the book, the kids who inspired it, and working as a writer/performer.
What inspired you to write a book specifically for queer youth?
It wasn’t what inspired me, it was who. For years now I have been being asked by high school English and drama teachers, librarians, and school counselors to put together a collection of my stories that was completely appropriate for high school libraries. Note that I said libraries, and not students. Teachers that brought me into their schools to do my anti-bullying show would take me aside and confess: “I photocopied your story ‘No Bikini,’ or ‘I Like to Wear Dresses,’ to give to my students to read. I would have assigned them the entire book, except it also included…” Fill in the blank here. Basically, they were asking me to put out a young adult collection, one that didn’t include stories about, I don’t know, weed or drinking liquor or anal sex, so they could get it into the library and into the hands of kids that might need those stories. In my younger days, I was all ‘I will not be censored’ about it, but then I began to realize that what I was really doing was keeping those stories that were important for queer kids to read out of their hands. So I talked to Arsenal, and we began sifting through my previous collections, and pulling out the stories that would work. We toned down the language in a couple, and I wrote some new ones. I want it to be known that I didn’t tone down the language for the kids. The youth can handle it. They are intelligent and fully capable of making their own decisions. I did it for the parents and school administrators. I didn’t want them to have an easy excuse to keep this book out of the hands of their students.
Did writing this collection differ from your experiences of writing past books? If so, how?
Well, as I mentioned in the answer to the previous question, a large number of the stories in OIEC were re-printed from previous collections, I would estimate that about a third of the book is new material. The writing process did not differ that much, I would say it was more the editing process that was different. I had to be a little more careful, again for the reasons detailed above. I watched my language a little more, which, to be frank, I think I should do more of anyway, regardless of the intended audience. But my writing process didn’t stray too much. I write for myself first, to clarify and solidify my thought process, to sift and sort through my day, to document, to capture, to make myself laugh at things that are decidedly unfunny. To try to create something beautiful in words. I always try to keep true to that creative process, no matter who I think the intended audience might be.
The stories in One in Every Crowd are divided into six sections [One: Kid I Was, Two: Family I have, Three: That Boy, Four: Kids I Met, Five: Folks I Felt It Necessary to School in Some Way or Another, with Varying Degrees of Success, Six: Wisdom, I Found, Learned, or Was Given]. How did this structure come about?
I wrote down the title and a brief description of each story. Then I placed them into groups that seemed to make sense, collections of stories I thought belonged together. The pattern that began to emerge was linear, and based on the age I was when the stories happened at first. I took that initial idea and went with it. The chapters fell together, sort of, and then I titled them after the fact.
In Kids I Met you write about your experiences performing in high schools, meeting kids who have inspired you, and whom you have inspired. How have these encounters affected you and your work as a performer/writer?
Meeting those kids, every one of them, has solidified for me my commitment to write more material for queer youth. There are just not enough representations of queer youth out there yet, by any stretch. There are almost none (that I know of, but I am by no means an expert) in the non-fiction category. I also want to see more stories that include queer and trans youth in stories that are essentially about other things, not just stories for queer youth that are about queer youth doing queer things.
I really loved reading those stories, I think, because I could see myself in a lot of those kids—that experience of meeting an author whose work has greatly affected me and (though I’m embarrassed to admit it) being star struck by their presence. It was interesting to see that experience from a different perspective in “My Name is Sam” and “Nobody Ever.” I wonder, growing up, did you have authors whom you wish you could have met or did meet? Authors whose work you admire or identify with?
I lived in the Yukon when I was growing up, before the internet, and social media, so to be honest with you, I never really dreamed of meeting anyone famous, or any writers, or actors, or hockey players, or anyone. It just seemed outside of the scope of reality for me. That said, I loved reading when I was a kid, I was voracious, but I didn’t concern myself too much at the time with authors. Funny, now that I think of it. I was more engrossed in the story than I was the person who had invented it. I would have probably been way more likely to have wanted to meet Harriet the Spy, for instance, than I would have Louise Fitzhugh. That is just the kind of kid I was. I don’t want to sound all “kids these days” or anything, but I think as a whole our society was a little less obsessed with celebrity than it seems to be now.
In the beginning you write a letter to yourself as a kid telling yourself that it is possible to grow up and become a fulltime writer. When did you start writing and when did you believe that it was possible to have a career as a writer?
I started writing for [real] in grade seven. That was the first time I remember really feeling like writing was something that was mine, that I could own, that was for me. I still have to remind myself every day that it is possible to have a career as a writer. There are still days when I forget this, and have to reassure myself. I have to look around me and my life and remind myself that I can get up and do it all over again.
How do you think things have changed (or not changed) for queer kids from when you were in high school to the present?
I think it is definitely easier to come out, but not necessarily easier to be out. There are more queer role models out there, for sure, but we have to ask ourselves if the role models presented to us by popular culture are realistic ones, or if they are always the kind of individuals that we would choose for our kids to want to be like when they grow up. Just like straight parents of straight kids do, I suppose. Of course there is the Internet, and the community and support and advice that queer youth can find there, but again, is this real [community]? Does being able to talk to other queer kids online when you are—for all intents and purposes—financially and logistically stuck in a small town, or an evangelical Christian home somewhere, help queer youth? Well, of course it does, it is better than no support, no contact at all. But is it a substitute for real flesh and bones people in your actual physical life who love and support you? No, I don’t think it is, and we should never forget that. I have heard queer elders say that although things were scary and tough when they came out of the closet in the 50s or the 60s or the 70s, and homophobia was rampant everywhere, the flip side was that the community looked after its own a lot better and more intentionally back then. There was active mentoring, and showing the younger folks the ropes, and having each other’s backs in a way they don’t sense or feel in today’s queer communities. So, is it just better now than it was then? Yes and no. It is different.
In what ways does performing spoken word differ from your writing process? Do they ever inform one another?
I am so influenced by live storytelling in my written work. I have been live storytelling for years longer than I have been publishing, so the two are now nearly inseparable for me. I read a children’s author being quoted somewhere years ago, I don’t remember who it was, sorry, but they said something to the effect that a live audience is the best editor a writer will ever have. I think that is true, and the stage has indelibly marked the pacing, the timing, and the delivery of my words on the page.
Your stories about family are very powerful and moving. How do you approach writing about your family? Are there particular challenges to writing about the people closest to you, knowing that they may read it?
This is a huge question, one that I could write an entire how-to guide about. To sum it all up in a couple of sound bites for the purpose of this interview, I will say that I always, always, always try to use my powers for good, not evil. I try to honour the real people that appear in my work. I can’t do too much about how someone else will read those characters or interpret them, but I always try to keep these aims in my heart. My family is very important to me, and I am very connected to them. I hope to keep it that way. I will say I am moving towards writing a lot more fiction these days.
Can you tell us about one of your favorite performing experiences?
I do upwards of 200 live performances in any given calendar year, and I have been performing now since 1990. I can’t really narrow it down to a favourite top one hundred experiences, much less a single one. I love the immediacy of it, the people I meet, the stories that they gift me with afterwards. I love collaborating: with musicians, with filmmakers, with other storytellers, with acrobats. This really happened. I did a collaboration with an aerialist one time. I like being able to see how simple words can move people, and how much we all need that collective experience, to witness and be moved by something. What a relief that can be, to just feel something, experience an emotion, whether it is as a result of my story, or a story the listener was reminded of when they heard mine. I love all of it.