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I will never forget the first time I saw Ivan Coyote perform at a literary festival. I was slammed with jet lag, having just arrived on the other side of the world, but forced myself to go to the event. It was at a smallish art gallery in Christchurch, New Zealand. Coyote was last on the bill, following a line-up of mostly local talent. It was getting late; would I make it? Then Coyote walked onto the stage, and wow. I cried real tears, laughed my guts out and felt the room around me transform from art gallery to a sort of sanctuary.
“Every time I step on the stage, it’s a sacred space for me. And it’s a sacred exchange with the audience,” Coyote said during a recent interview. “I prep for every single thing ... I’m pretty religious about that. I know that just stepping onstage doesn’t earn you an audience.”
It shows. There’s a reason I use the term “perform” rather than “give a reading” to describe what Coyote – who is trans and uses the pronoun “they” – does onstage. They are a force. And after seeing them perform, their writing is transformed too. You cannot read their words without hearing their voice – well I can’t, at least. Reading their new book, Rebent Sinner, I found the experience heightened by having seen them. Their voice was in my head the entire time I read passages such as this one:
“Butches and trans masculine people, especially of my age, have not been afforded many healthy role models when it comes to constructing our own masculinities, and we often assemble ourselves around the remains of our own traumas and still-screaming memories of failed attempts at being feminine. So we stumble and falter and overcompensate and build our identities without any blueprints. The result can be a flawed foundation, and the cracks in it sometimes leak, and bleed with our own complicity.”
Coyote is this year’s guest curator at the Vancouver Writers Fest and will open the festival Monday night with a keynote called “Care Of.” In the early days of the pandemic, Coyote, all their gigs cancelled, had time to deal with a giant backlog of correspondence. They have taken selections and created what the festival calls a giant love letter to human connection.
The guest-curator position at VWF is now in its third year; Cherie Dimaline did it in 2018, Tanya Talaga in 2019. When I asked artistic director Leslie Hurtig why she chose Coyote, she recounted a similar experience to mine – seeing them for the first time and being blown away.
“Ivan has always struck me as a storyteller who reaches far beyond an audience; the stories that they tell stay with an individual possibly forever,” Hurtig said.
“They approach their storytelling with a humanistic nature that makes one reconsider everything they’ve known previously about human relationships and the world around us.”
How do you do it, I asked Coyote, who divides their time between Whitehorse, Vancouver and London, Ont., where they have been spending the pandemic with their partner, the musician Sarah MacDougall.
“I really just learned on the stage. I think one thing that taught me a lot is doing school shows, as arduous as they are. If you can step in front of 1,100 kids who are forced into a gymnasium at 2 o’clock on the Thursday afternoon of the Easter long weekend in Fort St. John and you can manage to even vaguely hold 95 per cent of their attention for an hour with just your voice, stepping onstage in front of a bunch of consenting adults who are interested in literature at a writers' festival, that’s a cake walk.”
In addition to the keynote, Coyote has programmed three other VWF events, including an evening with Tegan and Sara Quin, where the musical duo/twins will discuss their memoir, High School.
Coyote recently signed a two-book deal with McClelland & Stewart and holds the Alice Munro Chair in Creativity in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Western Ontario.
Coyote’s VWF duties have been altered because the pandemic; there are fewer events at the festival this year – about 40 compared with the usual 85 – and they are all online. They will also perform with MacDougall for the Toronto International Festival of Authors in a prerecorded event. For someone who connects so deeply with their audiences, it has been an interesting pivot.
“You’ll never convince me that the magic of live performance can be replicated,” Coyote told me – although if anyone can rock this, surely it is them.
In any case, Hurtig says VWF audiences have been very understanding with the move to online.
“We’re all in the same boat here. And I think we’re all looking for human connection right now,” says Hurtig.
“We’re trying to do the best that we can do with the scenario we have. And I think we’ve succeeded.”
The Vancouver Writers Fest runs Oct 19-25. Ivan Coyote & Sarah MacDougall in Concert is at TIFA on Oct. 31.