Image: Jourdan Tymkow

Canadian writer, activist and advocate for LGBTQI issues, Ivan Coyote has graced shelves and stages for decades and found their honed prose and high-spirited live presence widely loved. Not content with having almost a dozen books published, recording several albums, a TED talk that has collected over 1.5 million views, and creating four short films, Coyote continues in a history of highly well received performance and storytelling with their tour of Tomboy Survival Guide, and publishing an award-winning book of the same name, out through Arsenal Pulp Press.

Ivan’s currently in the country for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, at which they’re making a number of appearances, and I asked them a few questions about their process and the wider reach of their work and activism.

KYD: How do you introduce yourself?

Ivan Coyote: Ivan Coyote, writer and performer.

KYD: In addition to your published work, you also have a wide-ranging history of film, music and storytelling performance. Reflecting on Tomboy Survival Guide, is it the result of some stories needing to exist in the written word, or is the process more organic?

IC: The process is pretty organic for me, I guess. I made giant lists of every story, anecdote and vignette I wanted to write for this book, and I made myself a deal to write 1,000 words a day for about 2 months. I already had some pieces complete before that process, mostly pieces culled from the script of the live show I created when I first started working on this project. I don’t think too much about what stories most need to be told, as for me that route can result in work I find didactic. I just make a list of all the bits I think will be relevant, write them or collect them, and then see what is missing, where I need literary glue or mortar, and then write that glue or mortar.

KYD: In writing Tomboy Survival Guide, both as a show and a book, it’s clear you’ve drawn on your own experiences throughout your life. Are there experiences and concepts that you’ve consciously held off on exploring in your work?

IC: Yes. There are large parts of my life that are private. I of course won’t list them, because that would invite further scrutiny.

KYD: You mentioned in an interview with the Daily Review last year that for your last visit to Australia, many of your audiences (as are many of any of our audiences) were predominantly straight and cisgender. Do you write with the thought that most of your audience may be looking in on, rather than sharing your experiences?

IC: I try not to ever write ‘to’ a particular audience. For one thing, you don’t ever truly know a) who is in said audience and b) you can’t tell who is who just by looking. Unless I’ve been booked for a keynote for a particular group (i.e. nurses, or prison guards or border guards or teachers) in which case I will customise my material selection to make it most relevant/effective for that group. But that is material selection for performance, that to me is a form of curation, not creation. During the actual creation process, the writing, I am only listening to the words, the pace, the storyline, the heart of it. What moves me and or catches my imagination.

KYD: What are you hoping an audience that is reading your work or seeing you perform, either for the first time or with repeat viewings, will come away with?

IC: I’m a storyteller first before anything. I hope the reader or listener is engaged, and feels something. I hope they laugh, or cry, or think. Maybe feel anger even, sometimes. I want the story itself to resonate first. I want them to see humanity there, mine, yes, but more importantly, their own. Anything else that might happen has to come after that, for me. I want my story to shake the ghosts of their own story in their head. I want them to come away believing stories are important. Listening to each other is important.

KYD: There has been recent government pushback in Australia towards a program aimed at inclusively teaching school children about sexuality and gender called ‘Safe Schools’, and there is clearly a similar antagonism to queer resources within the governments of other countries. Do trends like these inform your art, and what do you feel is your artistic responsibility (if any)?

IC: Again, I create as an artist, not an activist. My activist responsibilities are a different thing. That is where I am provided the opportunity to use what I create as a tool for activism. My artist responsibilities are honesty, candour, heart and soul. My activist responsibilities are relevance, accountability, intersectionality, patience, compassion, and my duty to support other artists and youth in my communities.

KYD: Is the advice you’d give to young LGBTQI people today different to the advice you’d give your younger self, and if so, what would the advice be?

IC: My advice would be different for younger me than it would be for youth today because of a number of factors. The internet. The times are different. The landscapes are different. The options are vastly different. I also try not to make sweeping statements with regards to advice for queer and trans youth because there are too many variables in play to do that safely and responsibly. I would tell a young São Paulo, Brazil something very different than I would a young queer woman in a big city in Canada. Different than what I might tell the same youth if they lived in NYC or North Carolina. Progressive parents vs. evangelicals? Do you live in a country where you are protected by human rights legislation, or is being queer punishable by death or ‘corrective’ rape? Just too many variables. Mostly I would say do what you need to keep yourself safe, emotionally and physically, first and foremost. It’s irresponsible to give youth advice without fully knowing the context of that kids reality, so I don’t make those sweeping statements lightly. Seek community, I would say. Not just online, either, if you have a safe option to do so.

Ivan Coyote is appearing in conversation about Tomboy Survival Guide in a free Sydney Writers’ Festival event on 26 May, as well as other appearances throughout the festival.

Tomboy Survival Guide is available now through Readings.