On being Donna Leduc

by Piyusha Chatterjee

Students of the Working Class Public History class reflected on their experiences of representing oral histories of Pointe-Saint-Charles which are part of the archive at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.

Speed dating with History

\When I first encountered the idea of becoming an “expert in one person’s life story” and perform a story from it for this course, I was very ill at ease. Here I was, fairly new to the continent and still exploring the city that will be home for the next few years, and I had been asked to give voice to another person’s story with whom I shared little in common, about whose life I knew nothing except what she had said in a two-hour interview, a person I had never even met in my life.

My self-reflexivity was almost debilitating. Reading Julie Salverson put my thoughts in perspective. I was resisting not the enormity of the task but the impossibility of it. Of course, my awkwardness also resulted from the fact that I am more at ease expressing my thoughts with pen and paper, or a laptop for that matter, than with my body. So, just as I would flinch less if I were to write about her life, I realized that perhaps actors find it much easier to perform a person’s life story even if they did not know the person. So, I went ahead and chose my story and I was Donna Leduc for a whole of ninety seconds, multiplied by five rounds of retelling. I wanted to stick to her words as I knew there was no other way I could “be” her.

What was my story? It was about growing up in Pointe-Saint-Charles, the close-knit community, neighbours who called each other often, little groups or cliques of neighbourhood kids hanging around and the snow banks that were “ten-feet high”. I chose to tell this story over many others because of what the story did to me. When she mentioned the ten feet high snow banks and for a while was trying to imagine what it would be like to run along snow banks that high on the sides of the streets of Montreal. It took me back to the memory of a big dining table we had at home when I was very young. Years later, when I returned to that house as an adult, the table had shrunk in size. I was very sure the table had been cut to size till I was assured that it was not the table but me who was of a different size now. Now I knew what Donna Leduc felt around snow banks when she was a child.

If you ask me whether this story is a fair representation of the life that I have somewhat come to know after repeatedly playing the interview, the answer is no. Will I ever know what would be a fair representation of Donna Leduc – the person who is a youth program coordinator at St. Columba House, who has lived her whole life in Pointe-Saint-Charles, who has worked many odd jobs in her life, raised two kids and has been involved in many community initiatives for a better neighborhood? I guess the answer once again would be negative. I can only hope that I was able to share a tiny little slice of her life in her words. Well, almost her own words because I chose a story that could be told in ninety seconds with the least amount of editing but realized during the retelling exercise that the pauses and the crutch words were mostly mine as I tried to make meaning out of what I said.

by Piyusha Chatterjee