I am an Ivan Coyote fan. A devotee after 2010, the year I spent in The Writer`s Studio (TWS) Program at Simon Fraser University. I had been accepted into the non-fiction group with Ivan as my mentor. There was something that drew me to Ivan`s open demeanour, quick wit, and the stories about daily life that were shared freely. That down home Yukon personality has stuck with Ivan and as far as I’m concerned, Ivan is just plain good people. It has also likely kept her safe as she navigates an often hostile world that doesn’t accept Ivan for being Ivan. Gender pronouns are complicated and I have done my best to respect the artists’ preferred pronouns. While working with Ivan at TWS, she expressed that she preferred she for her public image.

When I heard that she was performing with long time collaborator Rae Spoon on March 1 at 7:30pm, I found a way to get two tickets to the sold out performance. The show was presented by the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, and the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. It was held in the Telus Studio Theatre, a black box theatre with the ambience of a cafe. The evening opened with Dr. Mary K. Bryson, Institute Director and Professor along with UBC student Susan Rice Tele. Mary and Susan each spoke to their own gender alienation at UBC and the importance of opening up the question—what is your gender?

Throughout this multi-media animated performance was a backdrop of videos created by Clyde Peterson representing Ivan and Rae at first in black silhouette and then other images including an oil rig and pickup truck when they talked of growing up in the Yukon and the Prairies or a city street from the perspective of a moving vehicle. In the end, Ivan and Rae were flying in the sky, free as birds, dressed in blue and white plaid capes with their first initials on the back, propelling them over tall buildings, getting their fuel from little flames flickering from the soles of their shoes. Real gender superheroes! Sounds bizarre, but it worked to make the stage performance personal, quirky, and humourous in between life as gender failures.

Ivan and Rae, who were kicking off their world tour, began by talking about being gender failures, that is, people who were never able fit into their bodies and therefore failed being slotted into the “appropriate gender.” The stories they chose to tell were carefully picked with just enough punch for the audience to understand how they have been perceived in the world, but not enough to deter people from not wanting to be themselves.

“I was never a good woman,” Ivan says. She has bound her breasts for seventeen years and is now experiencing numbness in her fingers due to the tight binding done daily, meaning the surgery is time-sensitive.

Rae, dressed in a black blazer, red tie with a gold clip, a white and black checked shirt, and glasses that complement their Buddy Holly haircut tells the audience that “gender became a comedy not a fact,” and “I decided to retire from the gender binary altogether and change my pronoun to they.” Rae’s singing was sweet and melodic. Their obviously trained voice was easy to hear as they told their personal stories through singing and playing the electric acoustic guitar. Ivan used her own surprisingly sweet voice to sing backup vocals.

Ivan and Rae tell their own stories of being gender failures side by side to an audience of mostly UBC students who are here not only for the first class entertainment, but to hear stories that will help them through their own gender struggles. Rae and Ivan`s stories weren’t horrific accounts of violence or their own anger, but of inner struggles within everyday life in a world that only sees male and female roles. They were able to speak about the violence they had sometimes endured in a way that still offered their audience humour, relief, and the possibility of survival and maybe even celebration.

One of Ivan’s strongest stories was about Rosie, the first transgender person she met when she moved to the West End. Rose dressed in women`s clothing despite a chest full of manly hair. “Don’t ever call me he,” Rosie told Ivan. They had a special relationship, punching arms instead of hugging. Rosie herself automatically called Ivan he and never questioned it. Ivan held back tears as she recalled Rosie’s terminal stomach cancer and eventual disappearance, which left Ivan wondering if maybe Rosie was still out there somewhere, but knowing that she’s not.

Ivan’s timing was impeccable. She was brilliant at changing the speed of her voice to suit the topic. Always finishing off her words, she sped up to emphasize humour and slowed down during poignant times. All of Ivan’s stories are carefully crafted and it showed regardless of whether you are reading or hearing them. Judging by the performances that Ivan does all over the world, people still crave a live performance perhaps for its intimate qualities and relatable narratives.

Ivan taught us well in our mentor group how to write for performance, to pick out the best phrases so the audience can clearly visualize our stories. I have read several of my own stories before an audience and know how hard it is to develop proper timing, a strong voice, and tailoring that writing for whatever audience to which you are reading.

Ivan always spoke from heart using vivid images that were personal to tell tales everyone could relate to whether it’s the “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine,” 1980’s era or the transgender community today. No matter what the subject matter was, Ivan’s metaphors always fit the scene perfectly, for example, when a policeman asked if she had a gender, Ivan wrote, “his words are clipped; severe, like a brush cut.”

The year I spent with Ivan I was in awe at what tolerance she had for the world that had often been met with alienation and violence. I tried to take a page from her book and attempt to apply it to my own life, which is devoid of being called names or being looked at with disdain (to the best of my knowledge anyway), when my own anger in every day issues erupted. Seriously, what do I have to be angry about? Ivan’s stories have the power to make those of us who function in the world comfortably in our normative gender, consider this privilege and how we can work against gender oppression.

When Ivan talks about gendered bathrooms as being a source of danger, I was taken back to one of her stories about going into a gas station somewhere on the highway that she was driving at night to Whitehorse. At each station, with usually a lone male cashier sometimes with a group of men outside smoking, Ivan had to decide what was safer that particular evening – to identify as a man or as a woman, knowing that the decision would dictate whether or not the outcome would be uneventful or violent. That was when I changed my mind about gender-neutral bathrooms and not wanting to share a bathroom with men who tend to urinate on the floor and on toilet seats in favour of keeping people like Ivan safe.

After a 20 minute intermission – Ivan believes that live shows need to also have lots of time to mingle and meet with people with similar struggles – the show turned to decisions around gender reassignment.

Ivan, dressed in a brown tweed blazer, her signature hanky in the front pocket, stripped tie, jeans, and one of her several pairs of black Fluevogs, spoke of the old days of “packing” by using condoms, hair gel, and nylons. Not like the kids do now who only have to “go to the dick store,” to buy an artificial penis to put in their pants to give the appearance of male genitals. The crowd laughed, especially the young ones who had never heard of dicks made of hair gel.

After talking to her doctor about wanting gender reassignment surgery, Ivan was sent to a psychologist who questioned whether Ivan was transgender enough to have the breast surgery funded. It came down to whether she “packed” or not.

Next, it was off to a psychiatrist, who had a tendency to laugh and slap his hand down on the desk. It’s these little gestures that Ivan observes in everyone that made the storytelling so rich, deep, and relatable.

Ivan eventually asked the audience “am I Trans enough or do I still belong in the sisterhood?” In the end, gender re-assignment surgery without hormones was recommended – exactly what Ivan wanted.

Rae told their own story about an airplane ride and being called a lady by the flight attendants while a man sitting beside them was absolutely shocked that the pilot flying the plane was a woman and then singing the song “Who do you think you’re fooling?” a folkie-rock tune that made you want to tap your foot along to the music.

In the end, Ivan read out a list of questions from the gender reassignment questionnaire while Rae sung “I will be your failure,” a toe-tapping ditty about not measuring up to society`s standards of gender normativity.

Of course, being an Ivan devotee, I was unaware of the flaws in her performance. My friend Kiran, who got my extra ticket, has a strong interest in gender and race identification, and felt that both Ivan and Rae are coming from a white, Canadian, working class view. She spoke with frustration about how they seemed to centre their experiences as the ultimate gender failure—one of growing up in Alberta and the Yukon without speaking about the complexities of the land they were on. As Kiran says, “a solidarity with indigenous struggles was not expressed, and even hidden in the context of Rae’s discussions about wanting to be a ‘cowboy’ just like their uncles who worked on the oil rigs. This brought to questions of how the centering of a white gender failure was now acceptable to UBC and worth patronage by the Chan Centre, why were transwomen like Rosie’s stories having to be written by someone else, and why were racialized and indigenous trans, genderqueer, and two-spirit people not of equal artistic patronage?”

Rae’s last song was the debut of “Danger” with the lyrics “not obligated to be a woman or a man, we are stronger together, we won’t hide when we’re hunted, let’s walk home holding hands.”

However, you look at it, I think and hope that the young people that made up 90% of the audience felt that they had allies out there in a harsh world that is slow to change. The feeling throughout the evening was one of acceptance, camaraderie, and optimism for a future where people can embrace their gender failures and are included in a society that stretches beyond its narrow and suffocating rules and possibly breaking them.

 

I have been away from my blog for far too long.  Below is a review I wrote for a poetry reading I attended in October. I apologize for the out-of-date post, however, I think Daniela is worth hearing about and listening to whenever she is reading.

Poet Daniela Elza read from her latest work The Weight of Dew at The Writers Studio (TWS) Reading Series on Thursday, October 4, 2012 at the Cottage Bistro in Vancouver. With graceful and effortless composure, and making sure that everyone in the pub/restaurant could hear her before she began, she took us through a colourful garden of passages of her life from living in Maple Ridge to moving to Vancouver and finally leaving the city for a trip through the Kootenays.

Daniela knows how to engage her audience. Her unassuming blonde wavy hair, lovely smile, and open presence makes you want to get to know her immediately. She keeps the tone relaxed and informal by first connecting her own experiences to what other readers have read aloud that evening. She related Esmeralda Cabral’s travel piece on Lisbon with her own awkward experience on an air plane, having a glass of milk in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, not knowing which one to drink first. The explanations of her readings were layered throughout to give the audience just enough information, but not so much that you began to shift at your table, wondering when the poetry is about to begin. Daniela has an amiable smile and a personality that makes you feel as if she is talking only to you.

I find her poetry clear and easy to understand while still finding myself wrapped in those lines of beauty sprinkled throughout the seven poems she read. “Serving Time in the Burbs”  told us about life in Maple Ridge where “saying is too much to explain.” The poem “Dying for answer” took us back to Vancouver and explained that “they say it is mist rolling in from the sea that turns this City into silhouettes and shadows.”

Half way through her reading, she posed the question, “What do you do when you lose your first line?” to the poets in the audience.

“Get some sleep,” “write down the third line,” “cry,” and “hit something,” were a few of the responses shouted out from the crowd of 30 or so supporters, writers, and readers.

“Well, this poem is about that,” Daniela says and reads the first line of her poem which is “the first line of the poem is missing.”

She reads with just enough “poet voice,” that is, emphasizing the end of a succession of words, that it gives meaning to her images without overpowering the delicate pieces. She knows her writing well enough to look up without having to read every word, which is something I try to do, but am often too concerned with losing my place.

My two favourite poems of the evening were “In the Arms of Kootenay Lake” where “the hands wander over grain of remembered surfaces,” and being “displaced by a purple thistle by a poppy by the sounds of a bee,” and Crumbling through Harmony” where “the quiet will steal your ears.” Daniela’s use of language shows me that good poetry doesn’t have to be filled with overblown imagery. It’s her descriptions to which an audience can relate that I am drawn to. It’s her skill at infusing these subtle gems sewn into her work that make her writing so special.

The Cottage Bistro is a brand new venue for this reading series. With lighting that was easy on the eyes and the temperature inside just warm enough, everyone settled into a night of listening to poetry, fiction, and non-fiction work from TWS current students, Alumni, and the writing community. Co-hosts Ivan Antoniw and Jocelyn Pitsch kept the evening relaxed and comfortable. I felt as if I was in a friend’s living room. I have been both an audience member and co-host of The Writer’s Studio Reading Series, and I always hear something special in each reader’s work.

I already have a copy of The Weight of Dew (and a signed one, I might add) and look forward to Daniela’s next collection Milk, Tooth, Bane Bone that will be published in April 2013. I highly recommend taking the time to listen to Daniela whenever she reads next as well as buying a copy of one of her books.

My local bookstore has been saved.

The Book Warehouse on West Broadway has been saved

In an earlier blog I wrote that the all the Book Warehouse locations were closing, however, as of June 1st, the Book Warehouse is now operating under Black Bond Books http://www.blackbondbooks.com/events.php. Same great staff, and except for a few layout changes (the Fiction section is now where the New Arrivals use to be) it’s the same store I’ve been frequenting for the last 20 years.

Just to make sure, I went in last week and bought an Oxford dictionary and while at the front counter I couldn’t help but blurt out, “I’m so happy you’re still here!” to replies from both store clerks, “We know! We’re really happy too.” Just when I thought the the hard copy reading material around my work hood had been unsurped by the ereader.

Will I ever get an ereader? Definitely, but this news has certainly postponed it for me for a year or two. I see owning an ereader as an extra to hard copy books, likely using the digital form for traveling, although I’m told that the ereaders are fragile and can break, for example, when one’s bags are checked onto an airplane.  I can just imagine asking my travel companion, “do you have a book I can borrow? Mine broke.” I hope that both digital and hard copy books can find a way to coincide together in our constantly progressing electronic world. After all, I didn’t get an iphone until last year, but now that I have one, I don’t know what I did without it.

Now onto replacing my desktop!

 


March 11, 2011

Historic Joy Kogawa House

Last Thursday, I went to Room Magazine’s 35th Anniversary party at Joy Kogawa House. I knew nothing of the house that is located in Marpole, even though I’ve driven down West 64th avenue numerous times throughout my life. It was the house that the writer, for which it is named, lived in until she was six years old, at which time her and her family were forced to leave to live in a Japanese Internment Camp. Her family were never able to reclaim their home as it was sold by the Canadian Government without their permission. After changing hands numerous times, it was bought by someone who was going to demolish it. However, after public pressure grew to save the house, time was granted for The Land Conservancy of BC (TLC) and others to raise the money to finally purchase the property in 2006. The house is now a culture space for events, workshops, and a yearly writers-in-residence program.

But as I mentioned, I didn’t know any of that until I showed up for the party. Room magazine is an entertaining, enlightening, and enriching literary magazine run by and written by women. I had already perused the anniversary issue entitled Journey when it arrived at my door a few weeks earlier. What made me truly understand the stories was when I heard four of the writers read their poetry and short stories. There is something for me about listening to writers read their work. I feel rejuvenated, excited, and inspired whether it is to write myself or to think yet again about how much can be experienced in our world.

Each told their story in very different ways. Katherine Poyner-Del Vento’s three poems (that had been published in the Sister edition) about different types of weddings, gave one account about playing dress up with her own sister, vying to put on their Mum’s wedding dress that had once been put away for safe keeping. I, too, have one of these in my own closet and am not quite sure what to do with it. Barbara Parker’s told a story about her father’s descent into Parkinson’s disease interlaced with dementia who was fast losing his words. What was so ingenious about this narrative was that she paralleled it with an account about an Anthropologist and his journey to study the language of the Penan people who live in the rain forest in Malaysia. Carol Shillibeer read her lyric prose about swimming in a river with a dock, its rope keeping people safe if only they would hold onto it. Lastly, a fiction story from Taryn Thomson about 12 year old girls getting the wrong kind of attention from boys when they can’t stay away from playing a game where they allow these boys to catch and hit them.

What I enjoyed most though was the brief question and answer period after each reading. It was informal and comfortable listening to the small audience ask these authors to reveal their incites, feelings, and motivation into why they came to write what they did. While we sat on folding chairs in the tiny living room with an overflow of people standing in the hallways, I felt internally warm (well, it was warm in the room too) and happily amongst one of many.

I will leave you with these very small tidbits from a great collection of stories you may want to read yourself.

What a wonderful way to celebrate International Women’s Day.

 

 


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