Alberta-based author Kit Dobson joins us for this Read the Provinces interview to chat about his book Malled: Deciphering Shopping in Canada (Wolsak and Wynn), in which, through travel to sites of artistic reference, he explores how the capitalism of shopping places across Canada stands to impact the present and future ecology of our cultural spaces. Dobson shares more about how growing up in a consumption-driven Calgary inspired his deep interest in malls. Read on for the full interview and an excerpt from Malled, below!
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INTERVIEW WITH KIT DOBSON
All Lit Up: Tell us about your book Malled: Deciphering Shopping in Canada and how it came to be.
Kit Dobson: Malled was a fun and unexpected book for me. I initially thought that it might be an “academic” book, but I’m glad that it’s not. I’ve long been a critic of consumer culture and late capitalism, and so the book started from those political commitments. But I think of the book that emerged as a mix of travel writing and cultural study. It involved finding places that artists, writers, and filmmakers have used in their works and then traveling to all of those places in order to understand what is at stake in shopping spaces, to think about how they might be – or become – cultural spaces, and to understand what the ecologically imperilled future may hold for malls and beyond.
But it also started as an outgrowth of childhood awkwardness. As a kid, I was a deeply unpopular, nerdy child who didn’t understand what other people were doing most of the time. I couldn’t, for one, understand malls at all. They were big, they were brown (it was the 1980s), they had terrible lights that gave me headaches, and they were smoky (again, it was the 80s). I was the kind of kid who found the world hard to countenance – I found it, in a word, itchy. I used to get my mother to remove the tags from all of my clothes because I couldn’t stand them, and that itchiness also captures a big part of how I relate to the world. So I found malls itchy. In the book, I talk about how malls prompted The Despair, a feeling that I still get now, but much less than I used to. In part, I started writing about malls in order to cure The Despair, which doesn’t just affect me, but also anyone around me who is impacted by my inability to shop, like my partner and kids, for a start.
In short, I couldn’t understand malls, or shopping, or many of the things humans did, but I wanted to do so. Malled is a long-term outgrowth of the awkwardness that accompanied the sense of alienation that I’ve always carried with me.
ALU: It's been argued that physical geography shapes our identity, that there's a connection between our physical place in the world and who we are. As a writer, in what ways does your natural environment inform your writing?
KD: My natural environment deeply informs my writing. My next project is all about that relationship between physical geography and how I understand identity. I believe that being geographically connected to place can play a huge role in wellness, as well as in developing a sense of ecological responsibility or justice. My own family settled on farms in northern Alberta in the early twentieth century, and although I was not born there, and although the farms have now all been sold, I nonetheless am strongly linked to that environment and gain a great deal of my sense of self from the land.
Writing about shopping malls was in many ways also a response to that question. Malls, as harbingers or indices of late capitalism or something like what we used to call globalization, are often conceived of as being relatively placeless. The same stores repeat themselves from one mall to the next (or sometimes even within the same mall) and the products are uniform from one mall to the next. But malls are in fact specifically located; they do exist in particular geographies; and, when you spend more time with them, you start to see that they are specific to their environments. For me, looking at how artists have used specific shopping places in their works, and then traveling to those spaces to witness them, was a way of trying to return a sense of place – and even a sense of a natural environment – to places that are often conceived of as being entirely separate from nature.
ALU: Who are some of your favourite Alberta-based writers?
KD: Oh my goodness! There are so many Alberta-based or Alberta-associated writers who are among my main inspirations. I really am not keen on creating lists, though, as they risk excluding more than they include. There are many, many wonderful writers of approximately my generation, plus or minus, who are at work right now in the province, and I love and admire their work and their dedication. I endeavour to support and promote their work whenever I can, specific to each context. Talk to me about what kind of work you like, and I will come up with an Alberta writer for you to read. But I do struggle with lists. So I hope that I can be forgiven for focusing on writers who have come before me, and just provide a short alphabetical list of Douglas Barbour, Roy Kiyooka, Robert Kroetsch, Aritha van Herk, Sheila Watson, and Rudy Wiebe. These writers are ones who have made writing possible for those of us from younger generations in this province, and without their work, I don’t think that I would be doing the writing that I am doing right now, and I have nothing but gratitude for their labours.
When I was eighteen, I couldn’t leave fast enough. I grew up in cities around Canada, but ended up in Calgary for those formative teenage years – the ones that many of us might want to leave behind afterward. Among the things that prompted me to leave was the city’s culture of rapacious consumerism, a culture that was symbolized, for me, by the malls. I was complicit in this culture, but I wanted to shift it into my past. When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time in malls (all of which look different today): in Chinook Centre, that ever-growing space of upwardly mobile middle-class consumption; in the northwest’s Market Mall, a slightly more modest and practical alternative close to the University of Calgary; at Southcentre, then a slightly rundown mall at what was at the time the southern end of the city, which offered some different storefronts; and in the +15 maze downtown – the above-ground skyway – where shopping connects to office towers and apartment blocks (a place that I return to in the conclusion of this book). I also sought the used bookshops and cafés of the northwest’s Kensington neighbourhood, and the strip of oddities along 17th Avenue and 4th Street in the city’s southwest. Other places existed, like the more working class and racialized malls of the north- and southeast, and the hodgepodge of Inglewood, but my zone was mainly the southwest.
Why was I there, in the mall, so much? In the 2006 Gary Burns and Jim Brown film Radiant City, a film made in Calgary, we see the sprawling suburbs of the city coming into being. Although the city is never named in the film, Calgary is one of the targets of this satirical mockumentary. We see characters snarled in the traffic on Deerfoot Trail, isolated in their bizarre tract homes cut out of the prairie topsoil, trying to deal with disjointed lives on faceless streets and, importantly, going shopping. What appears at first to be a documentary turns out to be a false one, and we see that the focal family in the film is, in fact, a series of non-professional actors – people who live lives analogous to those portrayed in the film. I’ve often wondered how those actors feel about their lives in the aftermath of participating in a satire of themselves. One of the things that remains clear in the film is that Calgary risks being a caricature of itself, or rather that its stereotypes (oil and gas, cowboy cultures, SUVs and endless suburbia) risk coming closer to the truth than Calgarians might like to admit, even though the city is always changing and has, in my view, changed very much and for the better. One of my favourite statistics about Calgary is that it occupies a slightly larger geographical footprint than all of New York City, but has only a little bit more than an eighth of the population. And yet, some small signs of densification strategies are starting to pop up; maybe that, too, will change.
It’s in cities like Calgary that malls have proliferated. The last generation’s champion of urban spaces, Jane Jacobs, hated malls. To her, they signalled precisely what is wrong with post-Second World War urban environments. She argued that malls work because they hold a monopoly on commercial spaces. In suburbs, residential streets lead to strip malls; the streets on which strip malls are situated lead to larger malls; there are no integrated commercial or office spaces. You have to drive from your residence in order to get anywhere besides other residences, the net effect of which is the destruction of complete neighbourhood communities.
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Kit Dobson lives and writes in Calgary. He has lived across Canada and in the UK. The author/editor of three academic books, he is also the editor of Please, No More Poetry: The Poetry of derek beaulieu and a faculty member at Mount Royal University.
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