Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Nipple Clamps and Pot-Holders: Shifting identities with Ivan E. Coyote and Tagralik Partridge

The “E” in Ivan E. Coyote stands for Elizabeth.  For those unfamiliar with the author, she looks and sounds like a man – specifically, a homey, appealing, charismatic man with a nifty retro hair cut.  Like a northern Stuart MacLean.  The “E” is an insider nod to her unclear gender identity – born a girl, she presents as a man and has spent her professional life exploring gender identity and sexuality through story-telling, writing, and music.


If one were to judge by appearances (which obviously Coyote might advise against) the jam-packed crowd at Knox Presbyterian for the 8:30 Saturday night Northern Scene event was composed of more than one Coyote fan.  Festival volunteers hastily scrawled name after name onto the wait list for the sold-out night, and the room had a young, buzzy energy.


When Tagralik Partridge from Kujuak, Nunavik, took the stage after Lucy Van Oldenbarneveld’s ebullient introduction of both northern stars, she focused the audience on her particular story of identity in seven words.


“I don’t know what to tell you” she said slowly in a velvety, just-swallowed-molasses voice.  Suddenly, everyone wanted to know what she was having difficulty telling us. “We were picking berries,” she continued, as if she had just thought of a story, the perfect parable to inform this particular moment.  Van Oldenbarneveld has a snappy, knife-edge voice, perfect for morning news, and I could feel my heartbeat slowing as Partridge opened with a melodic piece on life on the tundra, hunting camps, blackflies, and quiet moments with friends.


Partridge has lived in Montreal for over a decade, so her next story (which won first place in the Quebec writing competition) brought us back to the city, with a mournful but cleanly-told story of a double heart-break: her heartbreak at losing her lover to his own heartbreak at leaving his land and family. “Living in the South is like holding your breath underwater for a long time. You get good at it if you want to survive.”


Ivan E. Coyote’s stories were energetic and rhythmic tales of family and small-town community, punch-line morals falling over each other as the characters vied for attention.  The crowd met grandma matriarchs and teenage moms, taciturn uncles and wise mothers, and laughed almost constantly with easy recognition.  Even as she related questioning her family about whether they knew she had “caught the gay early on,” her own gender identity was just one among many.


During the question period after the talk, Coyote noted that when she performs she always comes away with notes in the margins of her text - that she gains writing inspiration from how her spoken word impacts the audience.  Like here, she said, pulling out her piece of paper – “this one says, ‘nipple clamps and potholders’”.  Then: “Oh no, wait – that’s a packing list for moving.” 


I reflected that Coyote’s hominess is, in a way, the most subversive thing about her. 


Both Partridge and Coyote avoid politicizing their art.  When asked about the political import of her work, Partridge noted that “wherever you stand in society is political.  If you see something from that place, it’s on you to say something.”  Coyote refuses to identify herself specifically as a man or a woman, noting that she only identifies herself as a “she” to the media to avoid a conversation on “what my genitals look like” in favour of focussing on her body of work.  “I’m just trying to tell my truth” she noted.


With these artists at the mic, the telling of personal truths was deeply entertaining and profoundly meaningful.  The noise of the crowd afterwards, hanging out to get books signed and to chat with Partridge and Coyote, certainly indicated the event was a roaring success