The Next Chapter·Q&A

Ivan Coyote's book Care Of is an ode to the lost art of letter writing — and the power of human connection

The author and spoken word performer spoke to Shelagh Rogers about their latest book Care Of, a thoughtful collection of pandemic correspondence.
Care Of is a book by Ivan Coyote. (McClelland & Stewart, Ivan Coyote)
Ivan Coyote talks to Shelagh Rogers about their book, Care Of: Letters, Connections, Cures. The conversation was for the online community book club North Shore Reads -- a special North Vancouver library initiative.

For more than 25 years, Ivan Coyote has told their personal story in books and in live performances. The Yukon writer and author has written more than a dozen books, created four short films and released three albums combining storytelling with music, and are known for exploring gender identity and queer liberation in their writing.

All of that came to a pause when the COVID-19 lockdown hit, but Coyote still connected with their audience. They began to answer the letters, emails and handwritten notes they received through those years of touring.

Those letters form their latest book Care Of, which combines the most moving and powerful of these letters with the responses they've sent in the months following the lockdown.

Coyote spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Care Of in a virtual Q&A as part of the B.C.-based North Shore Reads book club. 

Shelagh Rogers: Is Care Of a memoir?

Ivan Coyote: I guess, of a sort. To me, it was an homage to the letter itself. I mean, inasmuch as a good letter is a memoir, at least a short memoir capturing a chapter of a person's life. That's what they used to do. They would catch up by letter, right?

How do you avoid burnout and how does it feel to be getting back into touring? 

I will never return to touring in the same kind of intensity as I did a pre-pandemic for many, many reasons. One is that the economic reality is so vastly different. Hotels have doubled, flights are, I would say, 60 per cent more. Gas is more expensive. Good luck getting a rental car.

It takes a certain kind of performer to get in front of 800 Grade 11 students. It was really hard work. I'm proud of the work I did.

I am changed on a fundamental level. I think my school show days might be done. I've performed for over 650,000 middle school and high school kids on five continents now. It's storytelling on the edge. It takes a certain kind of performer to get in front of 800 Grade 11 students. It was hard work. I'm proud of the work I did.

The school shows can be a grind, especially in auditoriums for people who are not consenting in all the ways a theatre audience does, where everybody wants to come as opposed to, "They're making us go to an auditorium for a lecture where there's a speaker. What is it this time? Crystal meth, teenage pregnancy? Oh, trans people."

Do you feel they made a difference?

I know they made a difference. I did shows for 20 years. So I literally have performed for the children of people I performed for. And look at Care Of and how many letters I've gotten? I mean, there's no question that I did work that had some value.

I was unapologetic, I was unashamed, and I answered their questions and I provided some sort of representation that I certainly never had access to. ​​​​​​

I stood up in front of about 650,000 kids. So if we go with the, I think fairly conservative estimate of 10 per cent, we're talking about 65,000 queer or trans youth that, even if they might not have liked it, at the very least I was up there. I was unapologetic, I was unashamed, and I answered their questions and I provided some sort of representation that I certainly never had access to. 

How important is it that queer and trans kids can now see themselves in book and stories?

The first trans character I ever saw was in The Crying Game where even the man who loved her vomited when he found out who she really was. And that was considered representation because we existed in it.

We didn't have the luxury of being too picky about how we were represented. That's the exciting thing about the whole literary scene.

I was just talking to the lovely Zoe Whittall about this. She reminded me how we used to go to the festivals and you could literally fit all the queer authors, much less trans queer authors, at one table. And now there are so many I can't keep up. And I would say a similar thing about Indigenous authors and writers.

When I read Care Of, I was so struck by your vulnerability and generosity. How do you discern how much to share and what to hold sacred?

Let's unpack the word "vulnerable," just for a second. Because if you look at the dictionary definition of the word , it means 'open to attack.' There's other meanings, but that's the first definition.

People say that a lot, "Thank you for being so vulnerable. I could never do it." And what they're saying is they could never do that, that they would feel open to attack. I don't feel that.

Being on stages is a sacred place for me. I try to bring my best self onto that stage as much as I am humanly capable of. Whatever minor annoyance or petty grievance I might be holding in my head, I try to scatter it from my heart before I step up there.

Being on stage connecting with other people on an emotional level, knowing that the right story told by the right person at the right time and the right place in the right way can do is the most powerful thing I've ever seen.

To me, being on stage connecting with other people on an emotional level, knowing what the right story told by the right person at the right time and the right place in the right way can do is the most powerful thing I've ever seen.

We've all witnessed it. We've all been a part of that circle of connection. And to be able to take someone to a place emotionally is a hugely powerful thing. I don't find it vulnerable at all. 

Ivan Coyote's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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