The Power of Created Stories in Ivan Coyote’s ‘Tomboy Survival Guide’

Ivan Coyote's Tomboy Survival Guide is full of well-told tales about growing up transgender in the Yukon.

We all share stories of our lives, from what happened at the office today to the best or worst thing that ever happened to us on a date. Although these stories may be embroidered for the purposes of entertainment, or to make us look better than we actually are, they have the virtue of being grounded in the real lives of real people.

Another type of story is also prevalent in our culture, and it doesn’t t necessarily draw on anyone’s actual experience. Instead, these stories use narrative to camouflage prescriptions about how things should be, and often these created stories, because of their simplicity, become more accepted than the lived experiences of real people.

Victims of sexual assault, for example, may be judged by the standard of some hypothetical perfect victim who dresses like a nun, never drinks or uses drugs, is overcome only by the most brutal application of force, and reports the incident immediately to the police, with perfect recall of all the events surrounding the assault. The post-assault demeanor of this perfect victim also satisfies everyone’s beliefs about how someone who was sexually assaulted should act — not too calm, not too hysterical, not too vindictive — no matter how contradictory those beliefs may be. If the real victim doesn’t measure up to our unrealistic expectations, it’s all too easy to conclude that the person in question isn’t a victim at all. Victims of police brutality, poverty, and racial discrimination can no doubt also relate to this type of unrealistic evaluation of their real-life experience.

What’s the best antidote to these fake stories that result in people’s real experiences being disbelieved? Real stories about real people that help people understand experiences outside their own. Tomboy Survival Guide, by the Canadian writer, performer and musician Ivan Coyote, is just such a collection of well-told tales about the author’s experiences growing up as a transgender person in the Yukon. Adapted from Coyote’s successful stage show of the same name, these stories are entertaining but also impart serious messages and offer the reader a window into the experiences of a transgender person who became a successful writer and performer. (Coyote prefers the pronouns they and them, a preference that will be honored in this review.)

One theme that recurs in this collection is that help and guidance may be found in the most unexpected places. For example, Coyote describes grandmother Flo, a devout Catholic, as “not a cuddly woman” and as someone who was “far more likely to cuff the back of your head than she was to pat the top of it.” Yet Flo was perhaps the first person to reassure Coyote that, while they might not be just like everyone else, they was just fine the way they was. As Coyote remembers it, Flo said that “Some of us have hard roads, but the Lord never gives anyone a burden without also giving them a gift. Your job is to find out what that gift is and use it, y’hear me? God doesn’t make mistakes. Never forget that. You are exactly who God meant you to be.”

How many transgender kids today would give their eyeteeth to hear such confirmation from the matriarch of their family (or from anyone, really)? Another positive influence was Coyote’s high school band teacher, Mr. Campbell. Other seniors had practical plans for their lives — study mechanics or computer science, get a union job — but Coyote wanted to study music, although such a desire also seemed “like a silly dream, a dream a seventeen-year-old small-town girl might have until she got pregnant or married or both, or had to take a job as a clerk in a grocery store to pay the bills.” Mr. Campbell said exactly the right thing at the right time — “do what you feel most called to do” — and the rest, as they say is history.

Not all of the stories in this collection are so upbeat. As a tenth-grader Coyote was date-raped by a 12th-grade boy, an experience they uses to examine their reaction to the Jian Ghomeshi case (Ghomeshi, a popular Canadian broadcaster, was tried and acquitted of sexual assault), and their reaction to their friends’ reactions to the case. The series of events Coyote relates are all too familiar to anyone who has spent much time studying real cases of this type of assault. Let’s just call the players “boy” and “girl”, since in this case both parties were still in high school, and use conventional gendered pronouns for clarity’s sake.

There’s a clear power differential in favor of the boy, who is older, bigger, and stronger, and he has a higher social status at school than she does. He gets her to a place where no one will come to her aid, and there will be no witnesses, then simply does what he wants with her body. As soon as she can, she escapes by running away, feeling frightened and confused (and grossed out) about the whole experience. In Coyote’s case, getting away from the assailant required hitchhiking home on a largely deserted road in a frigid Yukon winter, and the one person they told the story too became the assailant’s new girlfriend. (Spoiler alert: Coyote does get revenge, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.)

There’s an added bonus in Tomboy Survival Guide: the text is broken up by line drawings that might have come out of a high school shop manual or a wilderness survival guide, showing everything from an exploded diagram of a toaster to knot-tying instructions. Besides reminding you that all kinds of skills may be necessary to survive this world, they give the text a pleasantly butch-y feel and keep the whole enterprise from becoming overly self-serious.

RATING 7 / 10
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