Connecting Identity to Words: On Ivan Coyote’s ‘Tomboy Survival Guide’

Coyote’s memoir-in-stories is a survival guide for non-binary individuals struggling with their own identity.


Ivan Coyote
Memoir | Stories | 208 Pages | 5.5” x 8” | Reviewed: Paperback
9781551526560 | First Edition | $17.95
Arsenal Pulp Press | Vancouver | BUY HERE

Ivan Coyote wishes to sit in a room with you and have a conversation about gender, the roles we play, Canada, and where an LGBTQ+ individual fits in. Coyote shares their struggles, and how they hope they can help you with yours. As you read Coyote’s eleventh book, Tomboy Survival Guide, you’ll hear their trademark narrative voice throughout the collection of stories and experiences. Humor breaks tension, excitement builds in stories of childhood adventures, and emotion is on every page.

For an individual who identifies outside the gender binary, the term “tomboy” was an easy label to take on in Coyote’s younger years. Coyote describes the feeling of never being able to be a girl, and the feeling of refuge in the term, as if it gave them permission to stop pretending. This theme finds itself in almost every story Coyote shares — the idea of never being able to be female and the implications this creates as Coyote grows in a gender-binary world. A section in the first chapter, “Not My Son,” sets up the theme well:

“I didn’t even really actively not want to be like the other girls. I just knew. I just always knew that I wasn’t. I couldn’t. I would never be.”

Playing with the survival guide format, the book is filled with drawings of tools, spark plugs, knots to tie, and visual instructions for various tasks to complement Coyote’s stories of survival in a world that is still skeptical of trans and non-binary identities. Coyote befriends two women who both like “the boy things” but realizes this still isn’t the identity that fits. Coyote survives a sexual assault in the story, “I Believe You.” A small story, located between chapters, encourages readers to find their “freak family,” to find the people they connect with who help shape their identity.

Coyote also advises the reader to use terms — like “tomboy” — to explore until they no longer work, and then move on. It’s a powerful message for individuals struggling with their own identity, and it comes with the assurance that they are allowed to piece things together and explore until they find themselves.

The conversational tone Coyote uses throughout the book is its strongest tactic in making sure the reader takes in what the author has to say. In a community that can be incredibly isolated, Coyote strives to connect through words and to show that survival is possible; people who fit outside the gender binary are not alone. By sharing intimate stories and sly jokes, Coyote creates a sort of friendship with the reader, becomes a sort of mentor. With 10 other books that explore gender, community, and identity, and a band that performs similar themes, Coyote is becoming one of the loudest Canadian voices for those who strive to understand where their identity belongs in this country, and beyond. It’s a conversation worth having.

LYS MORTON is a Canadian writer and student at Vancouver Island University. When not attending classes for a Creative Writing major, he works as a news editor for Navigator Student Press. Lys also has a history of contributing to Navigator, along with various other writing outlets around Canada. And when finally pulling away from the keyboard to give ten fingers a much needed break, Lys can either be found reading one of the MANY books owned, or Netflixing. With focus on neurodiversity, LGBTQ+, and mental health, you can follow him on Wordpress here. A version of this piece was originally published in Navigator Student Press.
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