Columbus authors trace the ‘Collective Chaos’ of Ohio Roller Derby

Samantha Tucker and Amy Spears will read from their new book in during a launch event at Two Dollar Radio HQ today (Tuesday, April 11).
Cover image of "Collective Chaos"
Cover image of "Collective Chaos"Courtesy Swallow Press

There’s a moment early in Collective Chaos, the new Ohio Roller Derby team memoir from Samantha Tucker and Amy Spears, where the authors hit upon a through line that runs through the introductory story for many of the sport’s players: Things fell apart, and then I tried roller derby.

For Tucker, this moment followed the death of her brother, who was killed in Iraq. “Death was the real impetus of the whole lark,” she writes. “My brother died, I joined a roller derby team.”

“And that’s a real common story among roller derby people: Something happened, and I needed something new, and I found this,” said Spears, who will join Tucker in conversation during a book launch event at Two Dollar Radio HQ tonight (Tuesday, April 11). 

“It’s a community that doesn’t really find community elsewhere,” said Tucker of the participants in the full-contact sport, which the two write is played by a "chosen family" that largely includes cis women, trans women, trans men and nonbinary folks.

With Collective Chaos, Tucker and Spears profile a handful of these competitors – players such as Chainsaw, Bigg Rigg and Elektra Magneto – while also presenting a history of the sport in Ohio and Tucker’s critical perspective as a self-described “outsider” who first discovered roller derby in her mid-20s.

“I think when we first started, going in it was like [Spears] was going to tell the story of the team in Ohio,” Tucker said. “And then because my background is mostly in cultural critique, I wanted to have kind of that outsider gaze.”

In tandem, this allowed the authors to take a more holistic view of the sport, with Spears passages tracing the growth of Ohio Roller Derby, founded in Columbus in 2005, and Tucker’s work exploring concepts such as the societal factors that have prevented roller derby from entering the mainstream and the way the sport creates a space where bodies are not judged by outward appearance.

“At its best,” Tucker writes, “roller derby is fighting, hard, against the judgment of bodies altogether.”

Both authors also center the strong personalities who have given shape to the sport, playing through at times gruesome injuries and generally to little fanfare.

Other aspects of the memoir, including a chapter exploring racism in roller derby, surfaced after the writers submitted an initial draft in January 2020, with editors at Swallow Press, an imprint of Ohio University Press, then requesting the two expand further on the text. “So, when we came back together it was like, ‘Oh, crap. You want another 100-something pages in a couple months?’” Tucker said.

But the developing pandemic, along with the resurgent Black lives matter movement ignited by the murder of George Floyd, helped to give definition to these new passages, which Tucker said drew out the “collective spirit” that exists at the core of the sport, whose members navigated COVID-driven exhaustion while also hitting the streets as the Floyd protests extended to Columbus.

“Derby people prefer to stay busy,” Tucker writes. “Over social media, I’ve watched and learned as my teammates develop new hobbies and interests during our forced break from our beloved sport. Blitz Lemon has begun collecting and selling antiques, and is taking a welding class. Betty and BrutaChris and Avocado Toestop and Chic’n Scratch and countless others have started shredding skate parks and bowls and any slab of city concrete they come across. … Many of us have taken up protesting as our new hobby.”

Tucker and Spears described this continual push toward social justice as a byproduct of the ongoing conversations that have increasingly gone hand-in-hand with the sport, whose players have been at the forefront of the abortion rights movement and the trans rights movement, and who continue to wrestle with this history of race both in the country and within their chosen sport. (Tucker writes that over the course of her entire career in roller derby, she’s only teamed with four Black skaters, a number she describes as “unacceptable.”)

“People come into derby thinking, ‘My shit’s together. I know what’s right and wrong.’ Well, you’re still a white person in a white world. Are you thinking about these things?" Tucker said. “I think the hardest thing is getting people to talk about it. But I think it's generational, and a new generation of skaters is really pushing on it. I’m a button pusher, and once my brother passed I really kind of hit the accelerator, like, ‘We’re going to fucking talk about all of these things. We’re going to talk about how my grandmother is Korean, and how she was treated.’ And I know people would come for league and be like, ‘Well, we’re leaving that at the door.’”

“Right. And you probably don’t know this, but the first season, we had a bout where we have proceeds to (the abortion rights organization) NARAL, which seemed like a no-brainer in this sport,” Spears said. “And we had several skaters who were incredibly upset. ... But that was the moment where it was like, alright, we have to be all in on this, and it has to be everybody pushing forward together.”

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