Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote.
Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, BC, Canada, originally published 2016, my edition 2019.
Adult nonfiction, 244 pages + 12 pages for notes at the end.
Canadian memoir through a collection of essays – about life as a young butch and then a non-binary adult.
This was a gift from a friend who pointed out that I hadn’t reviewed any nonfiction by non-binary authors yet – to which my response was that I hadn’t read any yet. A quick trip to another room and this was pressed into my hands with the instruction that it should be my first, but definitely not only, non-binary nonfiction read.
I must admit that I struggle sometimes understanding the nuances of life outside the gender binary. It’s fascinating to think that things most people couldn’t have imagined twenty or thirty years ago are now commonly known among today’s young people. I do get bothered mainly by the use of plural pronouns for a singular person – which is why fi/fir are currently used on this blog, although the tide seems to be turning towards just using they for everything.
Turning to the book at hand, I’ll review each essay briefly before discussing the book as a whole.
Not My Son starts this collection off strong. An explanation of Coyote’s own life experiences outside the binary within the context of a very binary family is seeded in an early conversation with a stranger. Hopeless Causes continues the family rooting when grandmother Flo gives fir a medal for Saint Jude, and eventually rolls into memories of the summer fi was twelve and all the cousins stayed at gran’s.
A Dark Blue Bike is a shorter piece, only three pages, about riding a new bike for the first time, and a moment with fir father. Then the sudden loss of an eight year childhood friendship is discussed in I Shine My Armor Every Night. The author’s kinky interests also come up rather unexpectedly in this essay.
I Believe You is one of the heaviest pieces in this book, about how men commit sexual crimes and get away with them. It hits hard but is well considered. French Kissing is much lighter, about an unexpected relationship with a large age gap and a realization that Coyote was attracted to women.
Work Equals Force Times Distance Over Time tells about Coyote’s transition from landscaper to electrician – facing severe homophobia and sexism in school. After a disturbing incident which is never resolved, a heartwarming story concludes the chapter. There’s some sexual content and significant slurs present.
Journey, Man covers fir experiences as a journeyman electrician. Men continue to be intermittently horrible, but there are a few examples of positive masculinity. After the experience related in the last chapter, Coyote decided to go into film work. You Can’t Handle the Truth covers a fantastic women-only party that all the men on set were desperate to hear about.
Coyote discusses a handful of women, all femme tomboys, fi admired in Tomboys Still. Then Shouldn’t I Feel Pretty? is another heavy essay where fi responds in detail to one of the many letters fi now gets from trans and non-binary people. This essay discusses body dysphoria, self-hatred, and top surgery, especially the emotional side of all of the above.
Dear Patricia is a letter to Coyote’s mother using the second person you. Coyote discusses being a lucky tomboy who was loved and allowed to learn skills in How to Build Your Very Own Unicorn Trap, which concludes with instructions for building your own unicorn trap. Then Be Careful in There is another second person story about navigating bathrooms. The same topic is covered again in Will You Come With Me? which is structured like a piece from a musical.
None of These Words is a paragraph of words without gender. Coyote remembers a particular incident with fir uncle and his girlfriend Cathy in Whipper Snapper. Scars both accidental and surgical are the topic of Stronger Than the Skin.
Steve Said It Would Be Okay is a story about the experience of trying to visit a cavern hot spring tourist attraction while touring. I Wish My Son is an emotional letter from a distraught mother, and Coyote’s response. We’ve Got a Situation Here is about an anti-bullying presentation that Coyote gives across Canada, and the reaction that one town, and later one individual, had to fir show. These were some of the strongest pieces in the book.
Coyote writes a funny story of fir maternal grandmother and niece in Kraft Singles for Everyone. Then another relative story, this one sweet but sad, in Lonely Stripper on Christmas. In A Circle Goes Round, Coyote speaks of fir Irish/Roma heritage and the culture that was lost when fir grandmother pretended to be just a poor English girl, along with the surprising preservation of some elements.
“Should” All Over Everyone discusses an aunt, a cancer survivor, and a conversation about the many things gotten wrong, ending with a promise by both to be better in the future. Then fi discusses the nature of being nonbinary in Middle Seat. This was a short but impactful piece. Coyote speaks to the importance of “their” versus binary pronouns, but says nothing about other non-binary pronouns.
Baby Strong is the second-hand story of a family member’s gender reveal party. Then Vul-ner-a-ble tells the story of a festival organizer who asked what it feels like to be so open in Coyote’s writing – but in a way that suggested it opens fir to harm. Fi explains that writing down difficult things does many things but it never makes Coyote defenseless, weak, or susceptible.
Uncomfortable is a short bit about a viral piece Coyote wrote which was reposted on both a right-wing evangelical website and a radical lesbian separatist website, and how the hate mail from both of these otherwise opposite groups were incredibly similar.
Learn People Better is a short bit on the art of listening in on people’s conversations. Then Write Through is a surprising second-person romantic piece. Heat and Hot Water seems to continue the same conversation with a reunion. What We Pray For (The Tomboy Hymn) ends the book with another musical piece.
Several of these individual essays were articulate and moving, but they didn’t always work together to form a complete picture of who Coyote is and what fir life is like. However, the positives of sharing in Coyote’s unique viewpoint largely overcome this negative.
Let’s briefly discuss the illustrations. There are a lot, mainly pointing to activities that might be considered stereotypically male or female – how to hold an axe, tatting or knitting instructions, wiring diagrams and different types of screws, cooking. Some seem to combine both worlds, like the technical diagram of an iron.
These illustrations do enliven the book and help break up the essays well. My one complaint is probably also the point behind including them – there were no labels or captions to explain what we were seeing. You either know what they are, or don’t, although I suppose young people could probably use some tech magic to look them up.
Another aspect I was uncertain about are the brief pieces that sometimes occur between chapters. These are a paragraph or three of writing within a text box, or sometimes even just a single sentence. I wasn’t sure what to make of these musings. Some were insightful, some made sense as pieces that would have been difficult to include in a longer essay, but some left me puzzled.
This is an adult book not suitable for children other than perhaps a mature older teen reader. Content warnings include sexual assault, attempted assault, homophobia, severe bullying, dysphoria, swearing, and more. Coyote isn’t religious but grew up in a family that was Christian, so Christmas celebrations and other religious trappings are included. A few content warnings are included in discussions of individual essays above.
Interesting and educational, I think my friend was right that this is a fine first non-binary read. There were some parts I found delightful, some difficult, and some just confusing. Many essays here were strong and could stand alone, but the ending felt disjointed and left me confused about the direction of this memoir. I wished for more cohesiveness in this collection.
I’d recommend this to anyone who likes unconventional memoirs and people interested in learning more about what life is like for a non-binary person.