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Good writing has the power to bring to life a world that you may have never seen with your own eyes – whether that’s a Mumbai tower block and its inhabitants (Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower) or turn of the century New York high society in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. I’ve never been to a roller derby tournament, but after reading Derby Shorts, an anthology of short stories from For Books’ Sake in collaboration with London Rollergirls, I have a good idea of what it might be like.
Roller derby first broke into the mainstream with the 2009 film Whip It! which starred Juliette Lewis, Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore. Now there are over 1000 leagues worldwide and talk of the sport being included in the 2020 Olympics – how cool would that be?
Rather than attempt to clumsily explain the rules of roller derby, I’m going to include an extract from the Introduction to Derby Shorts, written by Helen Nash of the London Rollergirls where she sets it out beautifully and succinctly:
“Roller derby is a full contact sport played on quad skates. A roller derby game (known as a “bout”) consists of two teams of four defensive players and one jammer – the point scorer. The game begins with the pivots and the blockers (defensive players) skating in front in a tight formation (the pack)."
"The jammers race to pass through the pack once, at which time no points are scored – but a “lead jammer” position can be established. They continue to race around the track a second time and attempt to pass the pack again. The jammers score one point for each opponent they lap as long as they pass that player in bounds and without penalties."
The jammers may continue to race and score points for two minutes or until the lead jammer “calls off the jam” (by tapping her hands on her hips). Generally, a jammer scores four points each time she makes it through the pack within bounds and five points if she laps the other jammer. Like any sport, roller derby has many detailed rules – including no fighting, tripping or elbowing – but, obviously, the team with the most points at the end of the game wins!”
There are 14 short stories in this anthology, written by new and establishing authors who are also roller derby players, referees and fanatics. One of my favourites was Kaite Welsh’s This Is Not Your Great-Great-Great Granddaughter’s Derby which imagines the sport originating with a group of Victorian debutantes (team names including the Bluestockings and my favourite, the Northanger Abbesses – LOL.)
I’m drawn in by the unfamiliar terminology – “blockers”, “jammers”, the costumes, all ripped fishnets and neon tutus, the pun-tastic, badass skating names – I Scream Sundae, Lightnin’ Lopez, Sue Narmy and the tales of exhilarating competition, crushing defeat, jealousy, anxiety and thrilling victory. The rawness of the skaters’ emotions is played out on eight wheels, their frustrations and desires expressed as they race around the track.
What unites a diverse range of perspectives and experiences is the unashamed passion – even obsession – for roller derby which is more than just a sport, but a subculture and a way of life soaked in riot grrrl attitude. Taut, hard-boiled prose conveys the controlled strength and athleticism of the teams and their rivalries - both on the track and off it.
For Books’ Sake worked with the London Rollergirls to compile the stories in Derby Shorts. Formed in April 2006, they were the first to bring roller derby to the UK and are made up of four league teams, an all-star travel team and an all-star reserves team (Brawl Saints) that play teams from other cities around the world.
Speaking as someone who often bases the team they support purely on the name (I backed the American Football team Cincinnati Bengals when I was a kid because I liked The Bangles’ music – seriously) I’m pledging my allegiance to the Suffra Jets.
Derby Shorts is published by For Books’ Sake on Monday 20 May, costs £5 and is available to pre-order now at forbookssake.net
All pictures taken by the London Rollergirls