When queer storyteller, performer and author Ivan E. Coyote ( The Slow Fix, Bow Grip) publishes a new collection of short stories, we expect the range will be comical and varied, but also personal and reflective.
Missed Her is full of humorous banter at coffee shops, a diverse portrait of downtown Vancouver and embarrassing, self-revealing tales about family and friends. Throughout her career, Coyote has always come from a place where live performance, storytelling and music converge, where the text and the beat fuse and influence each other.
I saw Coyote read one year during Toronto's Pride Week. After she'd finished a series of stories about her beloved Gran, she went to a little table and chair, set up with a pen and a stack of books. Not wanting to intrude on a conversation she was having with another woman, I stood off to the side, waiting to see if I could get a question or two in.
"Step right up, beautiful," I heard her say, looking at me with a tired smile. I asked her if she saw a difference between what she did onstage and what she did when she prepared to sit down and write. She replied that the salient features of live performance and writing are bound in an inseparable way. Humour and charm, characters and circumstance forge a relationship that is ephemeral while also making an indelible mark on the discourses of community, sexuality and gender identities.
In 1996, Coyote and three other performance artists founded Taste This, a collaborative project based on live music, spoken-word poetry and storytelling. Since then, the Lambda Award-nominated author has gone on to release a fistful of short-fiction collections, a ReLit Award-winning novel in 2007, three CDs and a series of short films.
What translates onto the pages of Coyote's books is the immediacy of a live performance, the emotions and diction. The stories in Missed Her, first published as columns for the newspaper Xtra! Vancouver and revised for this collection, showcase these intersections with an ease that Coyote always seems to find in narrative. Whether it's written or spoken, it's always a perfect time to tell an honest story about how the drapery matches the accent wall, how "passing" has a double standard of both solace and anxiety, or how to mend a broken butch heart.
In one story, Coyote describes her reaction to an article in which the then-chair of Winnipeg's Pride Parade stated she thought the event should be more "family friendly." While the story is poignant with hurt, disappointment and rage at the organizer's image of who is an "extremist" and who is "mainstream," and therefore family friendly, the story is also a meditation on language - a heated subject, especially when it comes to labels and naming identities.
"Recently," Coyote writes, "I heard a rumour that the younger queers don't like the word butch. This makes me wonder: if I were twenty years old right now instead of forty, what would I call myself?" The implication is manifold: that language changes, that one word can mean different things for different people and that language itself is stubborn in its frequent refusal to liberate, and instead can stifle meaning.
In She Shoots, She Scores, Coyote recalls at the age of 6 starting to play for the boys' hockey team in her hometown of Whitehorse. Being the only girl in the league, she had to suit up in the maintenance room alongside the concession stand's beer cups and a dirty mop. Sure, that's the way it is for a lot of young girls in small cities and towns, and so when the Canadian women's Olympic hockey team earned a gold metal in Vancouver, Coyote happily admits to spending a good amount of time during the final game "on my knees in the living room in front of my television."
She revels in subverting stereotypes and undoing conventions, such as you can't call yourself a butch and own a Pekinese-Pomeranian. You can, and she does. Her stories are not exclusively domestic portraits of family life, the oscillation between forgiving and fighting among family members; nor are they wholly political stories that disrupt and reshape the contentious old and new debates about gender politics and sexuality.
With this collection, more than ever, Coyote delves into the seriousness of sexual conventions and gender roles with a wit that bridges a gap between city and country, oral and written, the self-conscious writer and the contemplative reader. What's more, she makes us think about the uneasy things we try to avoid; she puts a focus on the tacit and not-so-tacit differences between us as a way to understand each other and ourselves.
Brooke Ford is doing her PhD at Ryerson University and is assistant editor with Broken Pencil. Her first novel, The Summer Idyll , will be out this year.