Book Review – Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme

“Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme” edited by Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman (Arsenal Pulp Press 2011), ISBN 9781551523972

Ever since hearing internationally renowned storyteller Ivan E. Coyote at the Poetry Gabriola Festival in 2008, I’ve been a fan. I keep up with her stories by reading them in her column, “Loose Ends,” in Xtra! West, Canada’s gay and lesbian newspaper. Many of the columns have made their way into several story collections, most recently Missed Her (Arsenal Pulp Press 2010).

In 2009, Ivan E. Coyote and her partner and co-editor, Zena Sharman, set out to collect stories by their favourite queer authors. The result is Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, an edgy, sexy and poignant mix of genre, form and gender that defies labeling. The book’s contributors have written fiction, essays complete with source references and poetry. It is the personal stories that are my favourites: particularly those of Coyote, Sharman, Anne Fleming and Rae Spoon.

Spoon’s “Femme Cowboy” is a sensitively written piece that describes his upbringing as a girl “in a fundamentalist Christian home in Alberta” and coming out as trans in Vancouver in 2001. Spoon hopes “that the space for diversity will continue to open up” and knows “that we are all changing combinations of many things, with a fluidity that is very human.”(Although Rae Spoon’s bio uses the pronoun “he,” more recently I’ve seen the use of “they” as the “transgendered indie-folk musician’s” pronoun of choice.)

What I have realized from reading the book is the importance of self-identification. Essential to our well-being is not the label given to us by someone else but the name we give ourselves.

Coyote and Sharman found words for who they are – butch and femme – when they read Joan Nestle’s The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader published in 1992. She wrote the foreword to Coyote’s and Sharman’s collection. At seventy and as a self-defined ‘50s bar lesbian, Nestle continues to be “an activist, a theorist, and a femme.”

Sharman writes in “Looking Straight at You” about the privilege that comes with passing as straight. “Femme invisibility or passing can help keep you and your loved ones safe.” She gives the example of being the one to speak to two police officers when they thought a “raucous Pride party” might get out of control.

As Anne Fleming writes in “A Dad Called Mum”:  “…butch is not a faked or pretended masculinity but a distinct masculinity, with its own fluidity and give, depending on who’s inhabiting it.”

Books like this one save lives in that the life experiences of the various contributors are saved and the lives of people who read the book are saved. Literally, especially in the case of queer youth, they may possibly have found the courage to live when they find out there is someone else just like them.

Mary Ann Moore is a poet, writer and creator of Writing Home: A Whole Life Practice.