Human Stories

Reviewed by Emma Morgan-Thorp

This pandemic has posed a specific kind of challenge for performers. Studying in a theatre and performance studies program, I have spent the last two years watching my friends and colleagues itch to be onstage again, on the road again, in person again: to glory in the intangible now-ness of the live. From behind our screens, performers and lovers of performance have wracked our brains for ways to gather and perform, despite our inability to be “in person” With Care Of: Letters, Connections, and Cures, Ivan E. Coyote has found a way to be in community again by publishing a selection of letters from fans and readers, along with their responses. “These letters,” Coyote writes, “and the people who wrote them, were a lifeline for me, an antidote, a cure for the sudden stillness of the wheels under me. Our stories can still travel, I tell myself” (5). Many will be familiar with Coyote’s writing from their immense body of work spanning from the late 90s to the present: stories about queerness, family, gender identity, falling in love, building community, and finding oneself. Care Of will not disappoint those craving more of Coyote’s signature storytelling, which has always had the particular gift of making readers feel at home in it. And there is something more here, too: twenty new storytellers sharing fragments of their own journeys. Among them is Ace, “the older guy with the walker sitting in the front row lipreading” (9), saddened by the chasm he sees between binary and non-binary people, and Angela, achingly estranged from her dad. Lee writes about learning to be a better parent to his trans son, and Darach expresses his relief at having found Ivan to be “angry and unabashedly emotional” (147) in performance. With Care Of, Ivan invites us into their new, smaller pandemic life, at home in Ontario, but also invites us into memories of the road with them, and into the lives of the letter writers who’ve agreed to have their stories published in this moving compilation. Coyote has been sharing stories about their life with a startling degree of openness for decades, and in this book we see that this inspires others to want to do the same. In the sharing of these stories, we all gain insights about ourselves, and about the insights that the sharing of the stories gives us.


Music, Late and Soon welcome us in with a similar generosity of spirit. Robyn Sarah’s memoir of a (more and less) musical life—a youth devoted to the study of piano and clarinet, and the decision to return to her piano studies years later—is a luxuriant pleasure to read, due to the care for language and rhythm infuses it. Even the table of contents reads like poetry. Sarah shares with Coyote an evident love of words and trust in their power, having left music to pursue a writing life. An acclaimed and award-winning poet and short story writer, Sarah reflects on the musical side of herself, revealing the deep influence of her longtime teacher, Phil Cohen. What feels so special about this book is the quiet, focused attentiveness to the nature of artistic practice: that is, the ongoing and endless journey of developing a relationship with music, with one’s instrument, with one’s teacher, and with oneself. As Sarah herself puts it, “Human stories are complicated. This is a human story” (5). As human stories, both of these books are autobiographies of sorts: personal stories of artists going about their crafts. While Coyote writes about surviving the pandemic by responding to mail from fans, Sarah reflects on her ebbing and flowing relationship with music over the course of a lifetime. Both are writers preoccupied with writing, balancing the interiority of the writing life with the exteriority of performance. Both have music in them, which emerges through their words. And both share their personal stories with a stylistic twist: one through letters, and one through musical notation.


There is also something else, something that made these books feel timely to me in these dark and dangerous days: both Coyote and Sarah seem to be seeking a better world outside of capitalism, one through building queer community and the other looking to music as “a bulwark against the hustle of getting and spending” (epigraph page). Without wanting to give too much away, both author-musician-performers are preoccupied with learning about themselves by being in relationship, with finding and with being a certain kind of people. As Sarah puts it: “People whose willingness to listen is all the answer we really need; people whose listening helps us find our own answers, or helps us accept that sometimes there is no answer” (86). This sense of seeking is palpably at the heart of both books: the authors reach outside themselves to gather strength in the face of hardship, to find a softer, truer way of being in the world.


In one of the letters published in Care Of, Ivan’s correspondent Adonastare writes, “I liked reading your book, you seem tender” (221). If I only had eight words with which to review both of these books, those would be the ones. Such personal and tender stories. They reach towards questions about art and how to be a person in the world, they reach towards answers to those questions, they reach towards community and commonality. The way a song or a story can change the quality of light. Like a mushroom trip, the story-song leaves us aglow in a world intangibly changed for the better. Like an insight, it allows us to see differently. Colours are brighter; all of a sudden, we notice that leaf and its shadow, flickering on the branch. I liked reading these books. They made me feel tender.

This review “Human Stories” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Oct. 2022. Web.

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