In the hellish past (literal) week and (figurative) year, I have been yearning for some literary queer comfort food. A new(ish) Ivan Coyote book is the perfect antidote! I actually read Rebent Sinner in late 2019, when it had been years since I had read any of the legendary queer storyteller’s work. The experience was like a cozy homecoming. Given that I now have ample time to write for my blog again (since I’ve been laid off lol/sob) here I am to tell you all about it.
It is always such a treat and privilege to get a new Ivan Coyote book. I’ve been reading their work for a decade — gosh that makes me feel old — and it always makes me feel strengthened and empowered and full of community. Wouldn’t you love to do something that makes you feel connected to queer community but also doesn’t require you to leave the house a la social distancing? Read Rebent Sinner!
Like Ivan Coyote’s many previous books, Rebent Sinner is a collection of personal essays, anecdotes, and other unclassifiable memoir-ish stuff. But this time around, the writing often has a more elegiac tone than I’ve seen before. Their perspective is also a little more nuanced and complex — but still with their trademark vulnerability, kindness, and curiosity. Let’s not forget, though, the flip side of fierceness, strength, and determination that also shine throughout the collection.
These two sides of Coyote’s writing sometimes emerge when they tell two different kinds of stories about the same event or place. On one page, there’s a heartwarming story about a church basement event at Moose Jaw Pride, about meeting a grandmother in her mid-80s who comes to the Ivan Coyote talk because she’s trying to learn about her trans grandson. She tells Ivan that even though they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, she’s trying. She says “God bless [you] about four or five times.” The next page’s much shorter story reads:
You want to hear the other story that happened to me in Moose Jaw? I got called a dyke bitch in the elevator at the hotel. No one wants to hear that story, though. But that happened, too. I never once felt safe on the streets in that town, night or day, but that is so normal it’s not even a story. But it’s true.
Some of the other most moving material is Coyote looking back at the impact their work has had on the people it has reached, and also themselves. One essay is about writing a Facebook post in 2016 in response to a situation they had stumbled upon at a bus stop where a woman was being harassed by a man she didn’t know after not responding to his hello. The post ended up being one of Coyote’s most popular ever, and they got attention all over the world. A lot of this attention was, to put it very mildly, not good. Coyote writes:
This is what I learned: I look like a man to most people in my tiny profile picture on social media… Men get listened to by default… I was perceived by most to be a man speaking to other men. Most men don’t respond well to this… The whole experience rattled the ghost of the little girl I once was, and shook loose my own stories, and my own scars. It also made me flip over my masculine privilege and examine it, take it apart, and study the pieces… 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 of being feminine.
Other topics throughout the collections are about Coyote’s work talking to schools about anti-bullying, being used as a spokesperson for “diversity” as a queer non-binary person, (searching for and perhaps moving towards being) queer elders, travel, dealing with TERFs, family, and random human connections. Although they write about tough stuff and do not suffer oppressive bullshit or paint anything with rose-coloured glasses, Rebent Sinner leaves me feeling like I can face the world. The power of storytelling indeed.