Left: Quan Barry, photo courtesy of the author
In 1692, a small group of adolescent girls dominated Salem politics, accusing local women and men of witchcraft. The condemned women were often misfits, unfairly deemed dangerous by their kin. The young accusers themselves—their active imaginations stifled by puritanical life—quickly became the main players in the Salem witch trials. In her second novel, We Ride Upon Sticks (Pantheon, 2020), author Quan Barry reexamines this notorious history with a new question in mind. Who would these women and girls be had they lived three hundred years later? Her answer: the 1989 Danvers High varsity field hockey team.
We Ride Upon Sticks is a feminist bildungsroman set in a township just outside of Salem in the eighties. The field hockey team is on a losing streak, so they employ a dark strategy, using witchcraft to turn the season around. Forming an unlikely coven, each player signs her name in a makeshift devil’s book—a diary with a picture of Emilio Estevez on the cover. The losing streak becomes a winning streak, but victory on the field leads to debauchery off. A Ouija board urges human sacrifice, cars are smashed by field hockey sticks, a tarot reader is consulted, and potions are brewed. The team gathers for bonfires as regular and ritualistic as the games, where Janet Jackson blares on full volume and Bartles & Jaymes flows freely. Partaking in this pagan revelry, the girls dance stark naked in the clear light of the New England moon.
Barry’s novel is a love letter to her hometown of Danvers. In artful prose that recalls Barry’s long career in poetry, she depicts her local landscape in detail, unveiling the communal memories imbued in each turn of Route 1 and each corridor of Danvers High. But her narrative is as universal as it is regional. The field hockey coach, Coach Butler, is recognizable to any woman who partook in high school sports. She was modeled on Barry’s real-life coach, Barb Damon, and so vividly recalls my own, Miss Monahan, who would stand on the sidelines waving her stick like a baton as I tore through crowds of players twice my size.
Barry and I spoke over the phone in mid-March, just after she had concluded a book tour in New York and along Boston’s North Shore. She had appeared at Danvers High not a week before. Though COVID-19 loomed, we lingered on unrelated topics, such as hair, feminism, and D.I.Y. witchcraft. Our conversation took place, quite aptly, on Friday the thirteenth.
In We Ride Upon Sticks, you play with the aesthetics and tropes of movies from the eighties, especially horror movies. Why did you choose the eighties as the backdrop for the novel?
I’m from the town of Danvers, Massachusetts. I graduated from high school in 1990, which means I played on the field hockey team in 1989, the year in which the novel is set. But unlike in the book, it was never a rags-to-riches story. We were good all along. I knew the eighties. I knew the town. I knew the history of the Salem witch trials. That’s why all of those elements are in the book. I didn’t realize it when I was going into the project, but I like the fact that we can look back on that decade with a wiser eye. Oftentimes when people think of the eighties, they just recall the funny clothes and the hair. But, as is discussed in the book, the eighties definitely had their issues. It’s post-Reagan, you have the Central Park Five, you have the AIDS crisis. There was a lot going on, and I was interested in rethinking that time through a more complicated lens. It’s a time that was dear to my heart, because that was when I came of age.
In the book, witchcraft is a practice through which women can express and act on otherwise forbidden urges, and of course, this book takes place on the grounds of the Salem witch trials. The recent #MeToo movement is often referred to as a “witch hunt.” How were you thinking through the connections between witchcraft and feminism?
I’ve always thought of witchcraft in terms of female empowerment, because many of the women who were hung historically did not fit into society in traditional ways. They weren’t mothers, or they were old, or they were seen as too powerful. One of the first women who was hung in Salem was Bridget Bishop. A couple of the things were held against her—she was a tavern owner and she supposedly liked to wear red. I’ve always thought of witchcraft as a tool of female empowerment, even going back to paganism and Wiccan practices. Witchcraft is very Mother Nature–centric, and it just made sense that it would be braided into the book. I also wanted to write a story about teen sports, but one that looked at teen sports played by girls, which we don’t see much of in books and movies, even now. Think, too, about women’s soccer—the fight for equal pay and the difficulty that they’re having with that today.
The spirit of the U.S. women’s soccer team reminds me of the Danvers field hockey team, in a way. I love that moment when they realize they are the first female team at Danvers High to be thrown a pep rally.
Yes, they’re the first ones through the hoop. And when it comes to sports mascots, they are usually all male or even ambiguously gendered. Right now, in 2020, the Salem High School football team is called the Witches, which I just love. When was the last time you heard about a sports team that had a distinctly female mascot?
The eighties were also a moment when possibilities for women were changing, as was our understanding of gender. This tension plays out between the two characters named Cory. Girl Cory, the ultrafeminine “it girl” of Danvers, and Boy Cory, the only adolescent male in a women’s league, play opposite positions on the team. And yet, in some ways, they seem like doubles of each other. How were you thinking through gender and queerness in the novel?
I was thinking about it in terms of silence—that, unfortunately in the eighties, in Danvers, there wasn’t even a language for LGBTQ people. Not in a lot of places, and particularly not in high schools. How could people who were LGBTQ discover who they were in a world in which there was no language for what you might be? There was no vocabulary. If you don’t see yourself in the culture, how do you make sense of who you are? I was very much thinking about that with respect to Boy Cory and trying very hard to be sensitive to their arc. Now that you mention it, I hadn’t thought of the Corys as being parallel in certain ways. But somebody who I very briefly dated—among his friend pool there was another couple, a boy Cory and a girl Cory. I just thought that was so funny then. We were children of the eighties, before there were as many unisex names.
We Ride Upon Sticks is narrated by an anonymous yet omniscient first-person plural, “we.” Why did you choose this type of narration for a story about young women?
I always knew that I wanted to write it in a “we” voice. But I just didn’t know who the voice belonged to. At first, I thought that the voice belonged to the school. And then, for a very short period of time, I thought that the voice belonged to the freshman team. When I was on the freshman team, the varsity girls just seemed so adult to us. I was talking to my friends about it, and we all agreed that we knew everything about the senior girls. We idolized them. But then I realized pretty quickly that that didn’t work either. I realized that it’s the team that tells the story. They develop a hive mind, able to communicate silently as a collective, and that is one witchy element in the book. Even though they cast spells, too, there’s never any evidence that it really works. I kept wondering—is this just them being teens and believing in themselves? Or is it actually witchcraft? Maybe their hive mind is just their strong connection to each other. But the “we” voice did add this element of witchy-ness.
By contrast, other coming-of-age novels are often single-minded and individualistic, focusing on the consciousness of one adolescent. The communal narration plays with that trope and even breaks it apart quite radically.
There’s a way in which friendships among teen girls are more emotional than those among teen boys. And I do not mean that women are more emotional. But you don’t often get the sense that teen boys could necessarily finish each other’s sentences. Women can become very close. And our society sanctions that—it’s okay for women to be close in ways which aren’t allowed for men, which is too bad. I think that the “we” voice is reflective of a sisterhood, a sisterhood that allows the team to have that particular closeness and that group-thought mentality.
Your first novel, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, is set in Vietnam. But in We Ride Upon Sticks, you write quite intimately about your hometown. What was it like to revisit Danvers in fiction?
When you write your first book, nobody, by and large, is waiting for it. You have all the time in the world to write it. So, I traveled to Vietnam for research. When revisiting Danvers, on the other hand, I already knew it all. As a kid here, we were taken on field trips around various local historical sites. We went, from time to time, to Salem, which is basically the town next door. I just imbibed the history of the place. You’d pass the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in the car on the way to the mall. I played soccer by the Danvers Witchcraft Victims’ Memorial. It’s where the Salem Village Meeting House used to be. There are these markers around town that I have always known about. So, I wrote this book very quickly. It took me only a year to have a solid draft done. Thinking about Danvers—it was just fun. It was just fun to write about my hometown.
As the women of the Danvers field hockey team research dark magic, they encounter religions that white American communities may often think of as witchcraft, such as voodoo and Santeria. Could you speak to the tension in the novel between this largely white community in Massachusetts and its experience of difference, other, and race?
There are three characters of color in the book. There’s A.J. Johnson, and there’s Sue Yoon, first-generation Korean, and there’s the adopted Julie Kaling. It’s through these three characters that I talk about what it’s like to be a member of a minority community in predominantly white spaces. They each present different ways of being in a predominantly white space. In many ways, A.J. feels it the most acutely as an African American student. Take, for example, her experience reading Huckleberry Finn at school. For Sue Yoon, who is first generation, it’s about assimilation. Sue Yoon’s story takes place during Halloween. She has a tarot reading and gets a piece of advice. The reader—this woman who’s maybe a Wiccan—tells Sue Yoon, “Fuck ’em. Don’t pay any mind to what people think or say.” That’s the message at the end of the day. Be yourself. Be true to who you are. Empower yourself, and you’ll go a long way. Julie Kaling is different, too, because she’s adopted, and her family is white. I didn’t want the team to be homogeneous. I wanted there to be difference among them. To not address race would not create an accurate picture of this particular place and time. I hope that it complicates the reading of the book in a good way. And it maybe makes readers rethink their own experience of the eighties.
I loved A.J.’s campaign to have Huckleberry Finn removed from the syllabus, which culminates in a book burning. What role did literature play in your own childhood, and when did you first find fiction that spoke to you?
I was a weird kid. I’m the youngest of five, and I always wanted to be like my siblings. When I first started to really read—I would say, fourth grade—I would read the high school books that my sisters were reading. I remember reading The Crucible. I remember reading The Old Man and the Sea. How much did I get out of it? I could physically read them, but did I understand them? Probably not. But I have this memory of reading adult literature as a kid. And in elementary school, there used to be book sales. My brother and I are both adopted, and we were basically the only children of color in the school. There were maybe five of us at a school of two or three hundred. I remember Mrs. Atwood, our librarian, saying at the book sale, Oh, here’s a book that I think you’d like. I still remember that book—Philip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe. It was about an African American girl living in the South. It was about her adventures, and what she was up to. It became my favorite book. I couldn’t tell you what happens in it. But I still remember that book, because I don’t have memories of seeing many African American characters elsewhere.
Hair is a recurrent theme in We Ride Upon Sticks. I’m thinking, of course, of Jen Fiorenza’s “Claw”—her classic eighties ’do that is personified as its own character. Julie also defies her mother’s rules by washing her hair with egg whites, and A.J. comes into her own when she gets braids. Why is hair an important or useful image to you?
For girls and women, appearance is so much a part of our identities, fortunately or unfortunately. In the eighties, hair was everything. It was a mode of expression. You could tell things about people by their hair. It signaled something about them. And it made sense to me that the hair would be an important part of the book. I think of the Claw as Jen Fiorenza’s id. It’s maybe even the team’s id. The Claw literally says the things that they’re all thinking and voices what they all want to do. It was a lot of fun to think about that character. I don’t remember at which point I knew that the Claw would be a character. I think if I had sat down and planned it, it would have sounded nuts to me.
Most of the characters have one physical feature that’s monstrously exaggerated, such as the Splotch on Mel Boucher’s neck, the Claw for Jen Fiorenza, and the Chin for Nicky Higgins. This stylistic move again recalls popular movies of the eighties. Many are set in high schools, where that might already be the predominant way of categorizing and differentiating between people—by their most defining traits. Which eighties actors would you cast to play your characters?
Well, unfortunately, there weren’t that many young African American actors in the eighties. For A.J. Johnson, because she is an actress, I’m thinking a young Janet Jackson. Which is funny because the team listens to Janet Jackson. Or Lark Voorhies from Saved by the Bell. Similarly, there aren’t many Asian actresses who I could even name from the eighties. There’s always Margaret Cho—but she’s older than that, much older. If we were filming it now, I would cast Lana Condor, who’s in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. She could be Julie Kaling. Even though he’s supposed to be blond, the real Emilio Estevez could be the football captain. The only character who’s based on an actual person is the field hockey coach. She is modeled after our coach, who passed away last year. People are saying online that Meryl Streep could play her.
Is there one character or player on the Danvers varsity field hockey team with whom you connect the most?
They’re all a combination of me. There’s something about Abby Putnam that I like. I see her as being fearless. She’s fearless but she’s also authentic. Even though she’s an optimist and a go-getter, it’s not in a fake way. If you think about the movie Election, Tracy Flick seems a little delusional. Abby’s a go-getter, too, but she’s not one-minded like Tracy Flick. She is genuine, and real, and reliable, and her friends turn to her and she’s a rock for them, and she’s pretty happy. She’s the character that I most aspire to be.
Elinor Hitt is a writer living in Manhattan. She is an editorial intern at The Paris Review.
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