Derby Shorts – Various
The main reason that I bought this short story collection (besides a desire to support new writers, independent (feminist!) publishers, and an organisation I think is worth it) was so that I could have an excuse to talk about Roller Derby in a review. For those not familiar with the sport, this documentary gives a good introduction. The sport is pretty big in our house, as both my partner and I are fairly involved in the Edinburgh scene, and I’ve often wished for a greater media presence for Derby (apart from Whip It!, which is problematic for a variety of reasons). So my point is, I had a vested interest in wanting Derby Shorts to be good. I’m sad to say, I was mostly underwhelmed.
There weren’t really any bad stories in the collection, (apart from Dead Girls Don’t Wear Blades, a cyberpunk dystopian story that is loaded with all the needless clichés of the genre, (and worst of all, features derby skaters wearing Roller Blades!)), but nor were there many outstanding ones either. My main problem was that there was a lot of Derby cliché. You’ve got bitchy in-fighting between skaters as the foundation for several stories (though Call it Off, by Pam Berg, which tells the story from four perspectives is an innovative one), as well the crumbling of relationships (be they romantic, filial or parental), and having to deal people just not understanding derby. These are all valid topics to write about, but when collected together like this many of them did tend to blend together.
The stories that most stood out, are Steven LaFond’s Monster, which tells the story of an unorthodox looking derby widow trying to support his wife in the face of her parent’s lack of approval. I think this I the story I should most relate to, but there was just something about the narrator that wasn’t sympathetic enough for me to care about. Then there was Orgasm Rages, by Evangeline Jennings, which is notable mostly because I am very confused by the portrayal of the ruleset being used by the league, as penalties involved being beaten by phalluses and trips to the stocks (Definitely not a WFTDA sanctioned bout that one). To its credit though, the story does do a good job of illustrating one of the most defining characteristics of the sport: the apparent disparity between a skater’s Derby persona and her real world self. This is a contentious issue, but like it or not, its important part of the sport, so Jennings’ portrayal of it is a welcome one. Tiptoes by Kat M. Gray also does a variation of this very well with a story of a ballerina’s entrance into the Derby world.
Of the two stories that I think I would say are my favourite, one of them feels rather problematic. Zebra Noir by Daphne Du Gorier, which is essentially a murder mystery story focused around Roller Derby. It’s interesting, it’s well written and the reveal is played out well, but my issue is that it’s not really an image that should be encouraged, especially as the only real references to the sport in mainstream media is in Crime shows.
On the other hand, This is Not Your Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter’s Derby, imagines the sport being invented by Victorian young ladies. It’s amusingly anachronistic, and I think that Kaite Welsh has done a good job of imitating the narrative style of the time. The problem is that in it’s very nature, the story isn’t about the sport as we know it. Is that really a problem? Perhaps not, but I think it’s a valid disappointment.
For a lot of these complaints, I’m probably just thinking too hard about the context of the stories and therefore not giving them justice they deserve as works of literature in their own right. On top of that, despite my passion I also don’t really know what I want out of a Derby story, nor how I would write one, so it is a little hypocritical of me to be so harsh. I’ve tried to have my rating reflect this. As an introduction to the world of Roller Derby, there’s no real substitute to just going to a bout, but if you’ve already got an interest, or are a skater, you should absolutely give this a shot. Also, as I said, proceeds go towards supporting a number of worthwhile causes.