Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Long and Short of it with Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Kris Bertin and Danielle McLaughlin

Friday evening's celebration of short stories at Ottawa's Christ Church Cathedral brought together what host Susan Birkwood called "stories that dealt with the dual nature of human experiences: longing, and loss, but also hope and love."  The Long and Short of It, as the event was aptly named, delved into the microcosm of these emotions through the individual experiences of characters from seemingly different strata of society.  


The evening's first guest writer, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, set the tone for the exploration of such contradicting and powerful human emotions in her latest publication, The Stone Collection, where she explores the idea of how even the most marginalized members of our society are able to transcend the darkest of human experiences, despair and alienation, and how ultimately their survival is possible through a deep-rooted sense of heritage, community and above all, humour. As Akiwenzie-Damm explained the inspiration for her stories, the “dark, heavy, subject matter” reflects the daily lives of Indigenous communities, including the tragic realities of Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women. In the excerpt she read from Calcified Horses, a story set in Ottawa, the audience was able to obtain a glimpse into a life inspired by Minnie Sutherland, her story made powerful by Akiwenzie-Damm's juxtaposition of the character's inner strength in defiance of her perceived vulnerability. 


The evening's exploration of the themes of loss and hope continued with Kris Bertin's The Eviction Process, a short story dealing with the gentrification of a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Halifax.  Bertin's chosen excerpt from this story captured the forceful nature of his writing, direct and honest, very similar to the characters' will to overcome transition even if this might represent a sense of loss. For the characters, continuity and belonging are then sought through the more permanent bonds found in relationships. Chris Bertin's own interest in questions of human agency and whether we actually have any control in our lives placed his character's experiences in The Eviction Process in this greater context of the arbitrary or transitory elements often found in life. 


From a neighbourhood in greater Halifax, the audience was then taken further east to Ireland, the homeland of Danielle McLaughlin and also the setting for her short story collection in Dinosaurs on Other Planets. Here we came across Kate, a middle-aged woman caught in the midst of an existential crisis where the rest of the world seems to continue to move on its axis while she is at a standstill. It is only when the possibility of the unknown could offer something greater than herself like the idea of dinosaurs on other planets, does Kate feel a sense of hope in finding her place in this world.  As McLaughlin mused about this idea during the question and answer period, she wondered at the possibility of bridging the distance between our world and others. This notion of the will to find a connection with different eras and places is strongly hinted in the title story with the element of the discovery of an animal skull, taken to be the fossil of a dinosaur by Kate's grandson, the idea for which had come from McLaughlin's own experience with her son.  


By the evening's end the audience had been taken on a journey from a familiar story setting to others that were more distant.  Despite this, each story was able to bridge the geographical distances between the characters as a recurrent theme was found.  Perhaps the human experience is to be full of contradictions, but it is the will to hope in defiance of a darker reality that makes us transcend this truth.