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Transgress headliner Ivan E Coyote rolls into Ottawa

Transgressive writing can open a world of possibility, Coyote says

Even with a growing list of successful books and literary awards to her credit, Ivan E Coyote is clear about one thing: she’s a performer first.

“I was doing a lot of live performing before I ever thought about publishing,” she says, “so I’ve never had that transition from literature to performance like some writers do. It’s the opposite for me. I had to go from the stage to the page. And to me it’s always my first love, it’s my most natural habitat — to do the live show.” 

Coyote is both co-host and a featured reader for Transgress, and the Ottawa audience is in for a treat. Over the last decade, the Yukoner-turned-Vancouverite has become a seasoned storyteller, performing on stages across the continent and beyond (she just got back from a quick trip to Wales). She’s also published several collections of short stories and a novel, put out a CD, and even created a few films, including a recent documentary on the queer history of Vancouver, The Love That Won’t Shut Up, which she made with singer-songwriter Veda Hille. 

While Coyote’s work doesn’t exude transgression with in-your-face content or wildly experimental form, her characters show subtle signs of anomaly that destabilize preconceived notions. Bow Grip, her first novel, published in 2006, is a perfect example. The protagonist is a straight mechanic from small-town Alberta struggling with loneliness after a divorce. It seems straightforward enough, but Coyote weaves in the unexpected in a way that quietly questions assumptions about what a straight mechanic from small-town Alberta can or should be, from his acceptance of his ex-wife’s lesbian life-partner to his decision to take up the cello. Coyote’s work is full of characters that break the mould, one fissure at a time.

Another part of Coyote’s transgressiveness is the simple fact of being who she is and being visible as an author or a performer on a public stage. “Sometimes it’s not what’s being said but who’s saying it that’s transgressive,” she explains. “And it’s people’s fucked up little gender binary that they’re trying to insist on and cram everybody into all the time, and I don’t fit into that, I never have. So that’s where I transgress, but I don’t do that intentionally, that’s just who I am.”

Asked what the Transgress audience can expect from her, Coyote is evasive. She says she never tells anyone what she’s going to read. “Part of the performance is to figure out what the best story is to tell that audience,” she says, “and I won’t know that until I walk onto the stage.”

Nevertheless, she does drop a hint. “If I’m on last, it’ll be more raunchy, something that’s a little more risqué, that pushes the envelope, maybe. It’s a queer event, so people don’t expect to come out and not be challenged … so I’ll pick something appropriate to that and then look at my crowd and see.”

Although Coyote loves the stage, the constant touring and performing does takes its toll. She says that so far this year, she’s only spent 26 nights at home in her own bed. But a welcome respite has arrived. Carleton University English professor Jodie Medd spearheaded, through the Lambda Foundation and with help from local community organizations, a successful drive to bring Coyote to Ottawa as Carleton’s writer in residence. Coyote’s grateful for the opportunity and plans to spend the year working on a new novel, The Truth About That Man.

“I feel really lucky and blessed that I’ve been given this opportunity to concentrate for eight months on one single artistic project. I’m rarely afforded that kind of time or money to work on stuff. I’m going to make the best of it. I’m going to write the Great Canadian Novel and I’ll have Jodie Medd and Carleton and Ottawa to thank for it.”