At the Verses Festival of Words, Tomboy Survival Guide pushes gender norms

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      Although its title suggests that it’s targeted at a very specific demographic, Tomboy Survival Guide is not just for women who keep their hair short, a pocketknife in their boot-cut jeans, and a set of socket wrenches close to hand. It’s for everyone—including those of us born sadly deficient in X chromosomes.

      “I have no desire to create some kind of a box that people can feel alienated by,” explains storyteller and saxophonist Ivan Coyote, who’s teamed up with drummer Sally Zori, bassist Pebbles Willekes, and trumpet player Alison Gorman to forge this innovative fusion of words and music. “My intention is to celebrate people who push the gender norms a little bit.

      “For me, it [being a tomboy] was a space that existed, as a trans person, before I came to terms with that word [trans] in my own life,” Coyote continues, in a telephone interview from East Vancouver. “It’s not necessarily a safe space, but it’s a safer space, where you’re sort of allowed to want to do so-called boy things, or wear so-called boy’s clothes.…To me, it’s a loose category, and it’s an identity that I’m happy to share with anyone who feels like it resonates for them.”

      Including, Coyote stresses, men. “I wish there was a space that allowed biologically assigned male children a similar exploration.…In North American culture, anyway, I don’t see that.”

      Nonetheless, the tales that the acclaimed author of six short-story collections will be telling are rooted in the experiences of those born biologically female. Some segments draw on Coyote’s own life, while others emerged from the band or were crowdsourced online. Tomboy Survival Guide is a collaborative and ever-evolving venture, with guest contributions in its current on-stage incarnation from singer-songwriters Veda Hille and Kinnie Starr. It appears here as part of the Verses Festival of Words, the fifth annual alternative literary festival that encompasses everything from slam poetry to musical storytelling, running from Thursday (April 23) to May 3 at venues around town.

      “We commissioned Veda to write a hymn for us, and that’s part of the project,” Coyote says. “It’s called ‘What We Pray For’, and the way that we approached that was she asked us to start making lists of things that we had prayed for when we were all young tomboys—things like ‘to play the drums’. That was Sally’s: she’s a fantastic drummer, but she was born in Iraq and it wasn’t appropriate in her culture for girls to play the drums. So ‘to play the drums’, ‘to be picked for teams’, ‘a safe place to pee’, ‘tall trees to climb’, ‘a dark blue bike’, and ‘for her to notice me’ are all included. Veda pretty much lifted the list straight out of the Facebook thread we had started about it.”

      Coyote also contributes a suite of five pieces about non-gender-conforming women the writer admired growing up in the Yukon. These are backed by period-appropriate music—think Cat Stevens’s “Hard Headed Woman” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”—but the rest of Tomboy Survival Guide’s tunes have been developed collaboratively by the band. That’s something of a new direction for Coyote—and a return to teenage years as well.

      “I played saxophone in stage band all the way through high school, and then I studied music for a couple of years in college,” Coyote reveals. “I’ve always been interested in combining storytelling and music, and as my own musical self sort of comes back into it—I’m playing in this 11-piece funk band, Queer as Funk, with some really heavy players—more and more I’m realizing that there’s this sort of musical delivery that’s inherent in storytelling. In my own work I see that infrastructure, with things like alliteration and timing being so crucial to the delivery.”

      Music, of course, is a universal language. So between Coyote’s narrative skills and the quartet’s accomplished playing, Tomboy Survival Guide will likely offer both an insider’s look at tomboy culture and one with mass appeal.

      The Verses Festival of Words presents Tomboy Survival Guide at the Rio Theatre on Wednesday (April 29). The festival runs from Thursday (April 23) to May 3.