Ivan Coyote did a rough count, and figures they have probably spoken to more than half a million students over the years. In the Before Times, pre-pandemic, the writer and performer kept a relentless schedule – sometimes speaking to as many as three schools a day, in addition to public performances, and their writing.
Coyote, a master storyteller who is transgender, has spoken to school audiences around the world about social justice issues, including issues affecting trans students and teachers.
After every school show, without exception, Coyote (who uses they/them pronouns), has been approached by a kid – with a question, comment or even an almost wordless, but meaningful, exchange.
“I carry a little piece of each of those kids away with me, show after show, and town after town and sometimes I can’t tell one school parking lot from another but I remember all of their faces, I do,” Coyote writes in their new book Care Of: Letters, Connections, and Cures.
But their relationship to these school performances is complicated. And it might be time, Coyote reveals during an interview this week, to get this show off the road.
“The school shows really take it out of me. To be honest with you, I’m not sure if they’re going to be part of the after,” they said over Zoom. “It might be time to pass that torch.”
Coyote, who is from Yukon and is based in Vancouver, was in a cabin on a lake 35 minutes outside of Whitehorse during our interview. They had quarantined there after driving across Canada from London, Ont., where they had spent the pandemic with their partner, Sarah MacDougall.
Care Of, published this week, is a sort of epistolary memoir, comprising letters to Coyote from 21 people and Coyote’s responses, containing personal details from Coyote’s life along with their wise counsel.
Coyote gets a lot of mail. When the world shut down in March, 2020, Coyote happened to be in Ontario ahead of scheduled shows at Brock University. The gigs were cancelled, along with pretty much everything else. Their usually jammed schedule suddenly free, Coyote began responding to their gigantic backlog of letters, emails and social media messages. These were not mere polite, obligatory replies, but works of art that took on a life of their own.
Coyote, who has previously published a dozen books, happened to mention this letter-writing project during an online queer memoir panel they took part in during the first weeks of the shutdown. An editor with Penguin Random House Canada, who was watching, reached out and suggested the letters might make a good book.
“I was like, I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about it,” says Coyote. “I was really just answering my mail.”
The book includes sensitive exchanges with Canadian singer-songwriter Ferron; an actor from Pakistan who must conceal the fact that she is a lesbian for her safety and her family’s; the parent of a child who began her transition at 17 and killed herself at 21. “That day as I listened to you speak, it was like I was hearing the words that she wanted me to hear,” wrote the woman to Coyote in a letter that included a picture of her daughter, Kate. “You spoke directly to my heart, and I was finally able to understand the struggles and hurt that she must have gone through in day-to-day life.”
(Each letter writer was paid, incidentally: $350 plus two copies of the book; Coyote is still looking for one of the writers, who left a note signed “S” under their windshield after a talk in Victoria, B.C., in May, 2019.)
In their responses, Coyote reveals pieces of themselves and their experiences – at home, and on the road.
In one section titled “Shiny-Shoed Storyteller,” Coyote writes about a time they had three shows at the same school, in a single day. In between the first and second performance, they went into the gender-neutral bathroom – to find it covered in urine: the floors, the door handles, the toilet paper rolls. Coyote turned on their shiny leather heel and told the principal he might need to send in a custodian. “What did they do in there this time?” he responded.
This incident happened during a particularly rough stretch of school visits in early 2019 – around 40 shows in a little over a month.
The worst of them, at a different school, saw a student perform a Nazi salute and say “Heil Hitler” during Coyote’s talk. “It stopped me in my tracks,” Coyote tells me. “I took a beat and I just remembered my line; it was all memorized and I just picked right up, and I didn’t deal with it until after, and I walked out into the parking lot, my hands were shaking when I got into my car.”
That time “really took it out of me,” they say, adding that they were unsatisfied with the way the student’s behaviour was dealt with. “It broke me, to be honest, for months. And I realized that I was dealing with the emotional residue of that for probably the first six months of the pandemic still.”
In 2020, when the world shut down, it gave Coyote something rare: Time. A break from the road. A chance to respond to these letters, to write this book, and to think about what’s next.
Or not next.
I ask Coyote if they ever think about stopping for the sake of their mental health.
“For more than just my own mental health,” they respond. “It’s also time. I’m 52, and I’ve done it for 19 years and I’ve done it to death, and it’s time to step back and let younger trans folks who can connect on other levels, and who have maybe other messages and other things to say, right? ... It’d be really nice if it could be a person who’s of colour, [from] a small town in Canada. And I know that they, she, her, him – they’re out there.”
After reading Care Of, I find this development a little alarming. If there’s any question about the deep impact Coyote has had, this book provides answers in letter after letter.
“Your work has seriously changed my life ... Thanks for showing me the kind of person I hope I can become,” one writer states.
“Thank you for affirming every confusing experience in my life. Thank you for giving me courage. Thank you for making me feel loved. Thank you for showing me how to love myself,” another person writes.
Another message after one of Coyote’s shows: “I felt safe, all wrapped up there in your stories. That night did so much for my soul, and I appreciate what you do to make sure we have words, we know we’re not alone.”
And this: “It filled me with calm to watch you on that stage. ... There’s power in seeing someone not unlike yourself speak to the potential future of your experience. I wasn’t sure what was ahead of me, but when I heard you speak, I wasn’t afraid anymore.”
I read these quotes out loud to Coyote, over Zoom: “What does that feel like for you, to realize how important you are to so many people?” I asked them.
They said it felt weird. Then they said it was emotional. Then they took a long pause.
“It makes me consider how blessed I am to be able to (a) do something that I love; that (b) other people love; that (c) can have a transformative effect on someone’s life in a positive way,” they said. “Doesn’t that make me so lucky?”
Coyote is not going away. They will still do the odd live school show, but the pandemic has demonstrated that there are ways to reach people with produced material online that will still do the job, but leave Coyote less vulnerable. And that will make space for someone else to fill Coyote’s shiny leather shoes.
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