Gabe Montesanti on winning the 2018 Nonfiction Contest for Emerging Writers

In the early stages of drafting my essay, “The Worldwide Roller Derby Convention,” I tried to conceal the fact that I had attended RollerCon while recovering from a broken leg. It was my latest, and most severe roller derby injury—a seven-inch spiral fracture of my tibia and a complete displacement of my fibula—and it happened a week after I purchased my RollerCon ticket. When I began to write after the convention, I was still somewhat wedded to the vision I had for the essay before the accident. I wanted to take a fly-on-the-wall approach and simply “step out of the way,” allowing readers to experience RollerCon without being burdened by my personal circumstances. I wanted to be the lens, not the subject.

It became clear to me relatively quickly that I could not write that version of the essay with any kind of integrity—my experience of the convention was too deeply rooted in crisis. The question of whether I would return to derby when my leg healed colored everything I witnessed. Never had I seen such a beautiful fusion of campiness and athleticism. There were skaters wearing strap-ons and coaches in full drag. I saw purple leopard print elbow pads and knee socks that said FUCK OFF. The Bruised Boutique carried everything from sweat-wicking scrimmage jerseys to “derby proof” lipstick. Some of the biggest names in roller derby—Scald Eagle, Miracle Whips, Lady Trample—appeared to play and sign autographs.

Being broken afforded me the distance to watch from the sidelines and try to make sense of a world where everyone had decided playing roller derby was worth risking horrific injury. A huge majority of skaters had suffered worse than rink rash and bruises; I was particularly aware of their scars. At RollerCon, my perspective as a broken skater hovering between worlds was too vital to sacrifice for whatever “objective” telling I thought would be possible with a disembodied narrator.

“The Worldwide Roller Derby Convention” became the final chapter of my MFA thesis at Washington University in St. Louis, and is now the final chapter of my full-length memoir about derby. This essay unlocked the whole project for me, in a way. Recognizing the themes of physicality and queerness led me to draw new parallels between roller derby and my unconventional and often violent upbringing. Having a vision of the end also gave me direction—a place I could write toward.

I could not be more honored to receive Boulevard Magazine’s 2018 Nonfiction Contest for Emerging Writers. “The Worldwide Roller Derby Convention” is the first from my manuscript that I submitted, so the award is especially meaningful. I faced a lot of doubt, mostly about whether I could inspire investment—or, at the very least, interest—from readers outside the sport. Modern roller derby is such a foreign phenomenon to most people, and its unconventionalities are nowhere more on display than at RollerCon. It is such a relief to know that I can journey to the heart of it all and there will be others along for the ride. —Gabe Montesanti; photo by Bob Dunnell