Talking to Sarah Kurchak about being autistic, professional wrestling and storytelling
I interview the author of recent memoir I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder
What struck me most reading Kurchak’s recent memoir, I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder, a biting and sardonic perspective on coming of age as an autistic woman in Canada, is that it makes little to no effort to pander to a non-autistic audience. By the second page, Sarah has managed to sneak in a reference to Japanese professional wrestler Kazuchika Okada, a wrestler who is not obscure by any means but will be unknown to almost anybody who is not at least a casual fan. Why? Because she thought it was a useful example. And as readers, autistic people love learning about other people’s interests, no matter how detached from our own interests. Alongside musings on how society understands autism, especially in women, the book is filled with an infectious passsion and enthusiasm for a variety of subjects; from 90s Canadian indie music to the work of horror director David Cronenberg, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and professional wrestling. Kurchak, who hails from Toronto, Canada, developed a career writing about indie music but now writes primarily about professional wrestling and combat sports. As her book details, she even spent time competing in a semi-pro pillow fighting league in Ontario that has much in common with the wrestling we are about to discuss.
There are two reasons Sarah has been a dream guest of mine for this blog. The first is how much her writing and work resonates with me. So much autistic cultural content is produced through a lens of advocacy and appeal to a mainstream, non-autistic audience. I wanted Plastic People to be a space for neurodivergent people to talk about their own interests, exclusively because they are interesting and valuable in their own right. The second reason is that I am also a pro wrestling fan. Had I not managed to lose the recording of our first interview, we would probably have had to do a do-over regardless because I dedicated too much time in the first interview to discussing the nuances of internet wrestling fandom and Yuki Ueno’s current Universal Championship title reign. Having secured another time with Sarah, we set down to discuss writing and creativity, fandom and why autistic people love professional wrestling so damn much.
So, what is professional wrestling really? It’s performance first and foremost. The outcomes are predetermined, the storylines laid out by a booker. There has never truly been a concensus about how real it is; but in 2021, no fan is under the illusion they are watching a real sport. That it is still presented as such, combined with its reputation as trash or low culture, is why a lot of people don’t get it. ‘My now husband, we had so much in common in terms of pop culture, that I was like, what is this anomaly? I started watching it to try and understand it and I very quickly got into it,’ Sarah tells me. ‘It was [in 2000] when the Rock and Chris Jericho were feuding, and there’s this great undercurrent of homoeroticism that I got swept up in.’
It gave me a bit of everything that I wanted, and I was into the drama. I couldn’t afford to go to university so I was picking and choosing from different influences to work out how to become a better writer.’
Much as it would be easy to deride WWF’s unique brand of so-termed sports entertainment, which indulged frequently in brazen shock value and bigotry, there is something palpable about the drama of a promo [dialogue or a monologue used to build a future match] by the likes of Jericho or the Rock. ‘Something about being able to see live crowds react in real time to stories, and being able to watch stories told through physical actions, was genuinely inspiring to me. It opened my eyes to different ways of storytelling.’
Nowadays, Sarah spends more time watching professional wrestling from Japan, or puroresu, though it can be no less ridiculous, puerile or dramatic than its American counterpart. ‘The original copy of my book said something about Japanese wrestling on the back, and I sent this incredibly nerdy letter to my editors. There are white autistic people whose interest in Asian culture turns to fetish pretty quickly, and I didn’t want to be exploitative. And the idea that I was into all Japanese pro wrestling seemed imprecise, because there are so many different kinds of wrestling!’ I asked Sarah to describe what her favourite kind of wrestling is precisely because puroresu runs the gamut of MMA-influenced ‘shoot-style’ grappling, American-style sports entertainment, comedy and musical numbers and even idol culture. ‘The way I can distill it best is that I like promotions [or companies] that respect wrestling enough not to take it too seriously.’ Sarah responds, ‘Everything I love about DDT, about ChocoPro, and even the aspects of New Japan [Pro Wrestling, or NJPW] that I’m into, it tends to be the more absurd stuff that I appreciate.’
DDT or Dramatic Dream Team, founded in 1997 by wrestler Sanshiro Takagi, often seen as simply a comedy promotion, houses wrestlers like legend Jun Akiyama and current ace Konosuke Takeshita. The latter of these two is just as likely to sing, dance and indulge in homoerotic slapstick comedy as he is to execute some of the most technically daring, athletically impressive wrestling in the world. ‘I’ve seen conversations online where people have been like, you don’t understand! It’s not all comedy!’ Sarah tells me. ‘They’ll try to uphold someone like Takeshita; great wrestler, but he’s also very funny. It is a remarkable blend and that makes some people nervous because they want to be able to say: here’s your joke match, and here’s your serious main event.’
I ask Sarah how she feels about some online wrestling fans disparaging wrestling that they see as insufficiently serious or realistic. ‘Nobody getting into work that physically demanding, that pays as little as it often does, because they are taking the piss.’ Sarah argues passionately. ‘A mistake a lot of people make when they convert non-wrestling fans is that they believe the idea that wrestling is fake, needs to be conquered by making it look real. They think the investment and athleticism is fake, and it’s often the more absurd matches that are able to reveal the level of skill and creativity.’
She cites Yoshihiko as an example, an inflatable doll in DDT who is treated as an actual opponent, by wrestlers who sell the moves by throwing themselves (and the doll) across the ring as if in a match with a real opponent. The result can be either an dramatic, athletic bout or, as in Takeshita’s cinematic match against Yoshihiko in 2020 and one of the highlights of pandemic wrestling, an out-and-out horror film. ‘Seeing the skill and thought put into it, opens up wrestling in a way that they didn’t really think about before,’ Kurchak suggests. ‘It’s not trash, it’s playful, really invested trash.
We touch on the subject of why so many wrestling fans also fall under the banner of the autistic community. I joke that part of the reason is because so many autistic people are gay (in the broadest sense of the term) and wrestling also tends to appeal to gay people. NJPW tag-team Dangerous Tekkers — comprised of non-nonsense technical wrestler Zack Sabre Jr and Taichi, a slippery anti-hero with a look rooted in Japanese glam-rock and a heart of gold — are a staple feature of my Twitter timeline because of a rapport that, for LGBT people, is as deeply relatable as it is heartwarming.
Kurchak, who writes a lot in her book about growing up as a decidedly uncool bisexual in small-town Ontario, suggests: ‘I also wonder if part of it is, as autistic people, we’re already marginalised in some way, compounded if you’re out and queer.’ And there is also the simple fact that wrestling itself is also not a very cool interest. ‘Whatever need you would need to be in the wrestling fandom closet, that cat is out of the bag. The middle of that queer, autistic, wrestling diagram is a huge center.’
Pro wrestling too offers the ability to dive deep into the work of someone you enjoy, going back decades to scour for hidden gems. A culture of tape-trading among wrestling fans which prospered in the pre-internet era means footage of even the most obscure puro company exists somewhere as long as the match was recorded. Only last week, I had to reach out to a tape collector to find a copy of a match from 2008 for an article I was writing. They were kind enough to send me a copy of the recording, no questions asked. About the generosity of fans, Sarah tells me, ‘I have a family friend who was working on a wrestling documentary, and he said getting archive material from fans of stuff for documentaries was usually a struggle. But he found the fandom so welcoming and willing to share their archives.’ This kind of attitude to collaborate with others and desire to share the things you love struck both of us as being remarkably autistic. ‘To have someone that is not going to treat our interests as weird and freakish, but finds them useful, is going to find a lot of open collaboration with the fandom.’
As autistic people, we also relate deeply to stories about outsiders which have become a staple of modern wrestling. ‘There are a number of factions [a team or group of wrestlers] right now, built around these people who have been rejected or forgotten or overlooked, who just start hanging around with other assholes.’ Like many, Sarah is particular fond of Tetsuya Naito, the leader of the his own band of loveable rogues in NJPW, Los Ingobernables de Japon. A perpetual underdog, sidelined both in-story and in real life and beset by injuries, Naito overcame a vicious attack on his knee by Kazuchika Okada to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in front of a packed Tokyo Dome in January 2020.
Naito’s performatively uncaring responses to his failures and defeats, I suggest, share a striking resonance with autistic masking. It is the kind of unpleasant resilience that only comes from years of being excluded and overlooked. ‘He’s got that shell, where he pretends not to care about everything, but we know he does.’ Sarah responds, ‘It’s easy to see why people gravitate to him and get emotionally invested in his whole story.’
In DDT, the found-family trope has been used to great effect by DAMNATION, a faction of rock-star hedonists with emotional baggage, led by the impossibly athletic and supernaturally chiselled Tetsuya Endo. A recent story arc involved Endo challenging fellow faction member Daisuke Sasaki to a match, and then kicking him out of DAMNATION to try and motivate him to win. The resulting match was a melodramatic display of brotherly love and hate, culminating in some of the scariest high spots of the year.
‘Endo couldn’t trust his greatest ally to really try and bring it unless he pushed the one button never pushed until that point, which is Sasaki’s constant fear of abandonment.’ Kurchak laughs, ‘It’s very dysfunctional and very f***ed up but, it works! The idea of these tragic, discarded messes finding each other and creating something that is clearly not perfect but works for them, it hits me deep in my feelings.’
Two match recommendations from Sarah Kurchak
All my music-related interviews typically feature a playlist or some track recommendations at the end of them. As this is about wrestling, I thought it would only be right to ask Sarah to recommned a few matches for anyone who might be looking to get into the kind of wrestling she enjoys.
Lucha Rules Match: ALL OUT (Akito & Konosuke Takeshita) vs. Antonio Honda & Intelligent Sensational Grand Passion Mask IV— 18 June 2019, DDT Dramatic E Ja Nai Ka 2019
‘This is not easily accessible, but there’s this smaller DDT show, and it’s this goofy match that dissolves into all of them ending up in their underwear and pinching each other’s nipples. But the rhythm of it is so perfect. It’s the greatest comedy work. It’s not like, even the funniest match ever but it nails its internal storytelling so well and is so lightly playful that I think it’s a great example of how comedy can function in wrestling.’
Falls Count Anywhere Match: Mei Suruga vs. Ryo Mizunami — 4 October 2020, ChocoPro #53
ChocoPro is a free YouTube wrestling series produced by veteran joshi (or women’s wrestling) trainer Emi Sakura’s promotion, Gatoh Move, inside a former dentist’s office waiting room in Ichigaya, Tokyo. The promotion is bare bones, filmed with a single camera on a padded floor. Here, rising star of joshi Ryo Mizunami competes against fan favourite Mei Suruga in a match where either competitor can be pinned anywhere. The match predictably spills into the staff offices and kitchens and then into the alleyway outside.
It is such a favourite of mine that I have already written about it in an article which is waiting for publication. ‘As someone who cares about storytelling in any medium, watching what they are able to do in that room, multiples times a week, how it’s always fresh and innovative,’ Sarah enthuses. ‘The use of the camera and the angles! It’s incredible to me, it’s so exciting and inspiring to watch. Everything I loved and believed was possible in independent DIY art as a child of the 90s, I feel like this is what I was dreaming of; clever and getting so much done with so little.’
So you want to get into watching pro wrestling?
Getting into watching professional wrestling can be a challenge precisely because there are so many promotions and so much content. My advice would be to look widely, seek out what you enjoy and then seek out more of it.
ChocoPro is free to watch on YouTube, while New Japan Pro Wrestling regularly upload old and new matches for free on their YouTube channel. Both of these have English commentary. It would also be hard not to recommend Wrestle Universe, a streaming service which gives you access to DDT together with its exuberant and character-driven joshi (women’s) counterpart Tokyo Joshi Pro, and Pro Wrestling NOAH, one of the three ‘traditional’ men’s promotions in Japan. Sarah has written a Beginner’s Guide to Getting Into DDT for Fanfyte which provides a thorough overview of the history of the promotion, its many sub-brands and characters.
Sarah Kurchak’s book I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder is out now. Sarah can be found on Twitter at @ fodderfigure. You can see her writing about wrestling for Fanfyte here, including a look at why Gatoh Move’s Lulu Pencil is important freelance writer representation, and that time DDT’s Daisuke Sasaki had a sword.
Avery can be found on medium, on instagram at @ plasticpeopleblog and on twitter at @ 128harps. They write about wrestling for Nearfalls. Please get in touch if you have something you would like to talk about or want to share an interesting perspective.