What’s your name?
That’s a complicated question for a derby girl. Every time I meet someone new, hold out my hand for them to shake, I pause and wonder What name am I supposed to give?
My boyfriend calls me by my derby name when he’s around my derby friends. But I doubt he’d ever use it in private. I’ve never talked to my parents about my derby name specifically, but in the video my father took of my first public scrimmage, it’s clear that he starts calling me “Vill” halfway through, without any prompting. When I introduce myself to fresh meat, I give them both my names; after all, they don’t have a derby name to give me yet, so I feel like I’m only greeting them on an equal playing field if I hand them my parental-given moniker. In my home, where I live with another derby, and where other derbies can always be found hanging out, we use a hodgepodge of different epithets – I’m Vill and Villainelle and my other name too.
But I don’t have to tell you any of this. Because you know. It happens to you too.
Unless you’re one of the number of girls beginning to form teams that play with their legal names blazoned across their jerseys. I didn’t know about these teams until our discussion, a few weeks ago, about derby fashion and choosing an appropriate team image. When Moxie introduced the topic of derby dress, several commenters participated in the discussion, letting us know that their teams have eschewed all the traditional trappings of derby – including the nicknames.
In the ensuing weeks, I’ve thought about this every time I’ve had occasion to use my derby name. But the issue finally came to a head for me when, after a bout last weekend, my boyfriend pointed out that he’d spent a good deal of time during the first half explaining my name and number to his friends.
I have one of those names that most people don’t get right away. It’s not that it’s inherently complicated; it’s just that the things it references are highly personal and relatively obscure. And I did begin to wonder, at first, whether it’s really worth the trouble. After all, it could be argued that skating under an assumed name – a false identity – distances the players from the fans, and from each other. It could be argued that as long as derby girls insist on playing under wild names, their sport will never be taken seriously in a world of sports players known by their familial nomers.
But this week, I started reading something that solidified my dedication to derby names: 9lb Hammer’s new novel.
9′s book, Pivot (go buy it here! I’m reviewing it next week!), is the story of a girl finding freedom through her derby identity. In the narrative, the dichotomy between the narrator’s “real name” (Clementine Byers) and her derby name (Xana Doom) is crucial to understanding her transformation. Clementine’s journey to becoming Xana raises the question of how “true,” really, our given names are. As Clem begins to distance herself from her mother, she finds new family with her derby team; in that sense, the name she takes on when she joins the team IS a family name – a name that signifies the creation of a new identity. When Clementine introduces herself as “Xana,” she’s making a choice about the girl she wants to be and the life she wants to lead. She is taking control of something that seems largely uncontrollable.
I can identify with Clementine’s transformation, and I recognized myself immediately in her. My “real name” is suited to me in a number of ways. It has an old-fashioned feel; it’s longish and formal-sounding. It sounds stoic and responsible, like it might smell of roses and dish soap. And in many ways, that’s appropriate for me – or at least for a version of me.
My derby name is different, though. My derby name represents the things I am and the things I want to become. It’s about identity, but it’s also about aspiration.
I was a bit uncertain when I first chose it. I knew I loved the name, knew that it represented an appropriate sentiment. But I wasn’t sure it would make sense to anyone. So the first time I uttered it at practice, I mumbled it quietly. People aren’t going to get it, I thought. It’s not tough enough. It doesn’t sound DERBY.
What I failed to realize at the time, though, is that there are different kinds of toughness in roller derby.
Some of the girls in my league have names that immediately suggest their strengths as players. Unholy Horror is, literally, a horror if you step up to jam and realize she’s sharking in the back. Turbo Tyke is fast as fuck, and Tank Goodness plows through the pack like a (super limber) tank.
Other girls’ names suggest as much about their off-the-track personalities as their game-day personas. TrAC/DC is always rad and ready; Bout Love is bountifully good-natured. Little Miss Maggot and Ocean’s Motion both adopted names that speak to their careers off-track, and Zoom Tang… well, Zoom Tang likes pussy.
But Villainelle? Nobody even knows what the fuck it means.
The answer is that it’s a kind of poem. Specifically, it’s a brainy, complicated form that appeared a lot in the 19th century. You probably read villanelles in high school, although you likely don’t remember them as such. Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is one. And for the Plath fans out there, “Mad Girl’s Love Song” is another. I love both of those poems. But neither of them has anything to do with the reasons I chose my name.
When I joined derby, I knew I wasn’t obviously tough. I’m not a commanding physical presence. But I AM a commanding vocal presence. And an even more commanding written one. I can navigate words with grace and precision. When I stare at a blank page, I’m filled with fire and intensity – and with the settled confidence of a woman who knows exactly what she’s doing. Even if I doubt myself momentarily, if the words don’t spill forth right away, I can rest in the knowledge that if I concentrate and focus, if I place myself in the proper mindset, I’ll eventually conquer the doubts and discover the path to the ideas inside my head.
I’m nothing like my poetic self on the track. I get jittery and anxious; I get angry when I can’t see a path through the pack. I lose my voice, and sometimes I lose my mind. But when I look at the back of my jersey, when I see my name and my number (19LN, for 19 lines), I remember who I really am. And my confidence returns. I remind myself that even at my most frustrated, I’m in control. All I have to do is concentrate and navigate – put my body in the places the words should go. Manipulate my limbs the way I would a set of lines in a poem.
Derby names are important – whether we skate under our family names, sporting pride in our inherited identities, or under a name chosen to reflect our place on the track – the monikers we choose remind us who we are and what we can do. They remind us where we belong.