Home » Author Interview: Kit Dobson
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Author image courtesy of the author.
Kit Dobson lives and works in Treaty 7 territory / Calgary in southern Alberta, where he is a faculty member in the Department of English at the University of Calgary. His most recent book is Field Notes on Listening, published by Wolsak & Wynn in 2022. Previous books include Malled: Deciphering Shopping in Canada, published by Wolsak & Wynn in 2017.
Uche Umezurike: Field Notes on Listening touches upon lineage, land, labour, legacy, and the impact of oil capitalism on the environment. What should we be doing beyond listening to the land? How do we atone or mobilize for our earth?
Kit Dobson: I love this question. It’s a tremendous opening point. I’m reluctant to suggest how others should be in the world because that’s such a personal question—but if my book spurs people to think about how to act, though, that’s great. My own turn to listening came from asking myself precisely the same sorts of questions that you are asking: how to atone? How to mobilize? What to do? My hope is that a prompt to listen to the land might be one way to begin to bear witness to suffering, but in a way that might not be too overwhelming. Because listening unfolds over time, it is, at least for me, a way of bearing witness that is less painful than watching the rapid-fire imagery of destruction that I see in daily news cycles. That stuff can just shut me down because it is so intense. Listening is more meditative, and hence more purposeful. It is leading me to learn how to change and grow in ways that are, I very much hope, for the better. If that proves to be the case for anyone who might read the book, then that would be great.
You suggest that listening is also about sight. I’d like you to say more about this.
Both listening and sight are ways of bearing witness to the world, but I am also interested in metaphors. Language uses a lot of metaphors, all the time. Even very small ones. So many metaphors use sight as their foundation. But sound also supplies many common metaphors. Everyday phrases like “See what I mean?” or “I hear you” are good examples. I want to pause whenever I come across these metaphors because I am acutely aware that they may assume normative things about human bodies that not everyone might share. I want to hold space for those differences. If there is some common ground between listening and sight, then I am finding it first at the level of metaphor and the sorts of assumptions that common metaphors can make. I’m thinking a lot about those metaphors right now.
It is fascinating how your book is narrated in detours and digressions. Why did you choose to write like that?
Field Notes on Listening is organized around clusters of thought or themes related to listening. My detours and digressions are part of tracking through those clusters. Part one of the book is concerned with music and how music impacts one’s understanding of space. Part two turns toward thinking through how humans interact with one another—how we listen to one another. And part three, the final part, focuses on how one might listen to landscapes, and especially those of northern Alberta. That organization is far from definitive, though, and the book endeavours to move in a way that is conversational. Some of my digressions are associative ones, but they also help, I hope, to keep the book from being didactic. My goal is to engage readers in a conversation about what it means to listen to a place in an extended way, over time.
You occasionally remind readers that there are stories that are not yours to tell. Why is it important to highlight the problem of representation in your narrative?
Northern Alberta is complex for many reasons. What I would love to see is more people writing about the place. I can’t tell many of its stories. For one, I have not lived there, though I have spent a great deal of time in and around the town of Athabasca, in particular. My family settled on farms in that region, and that settler history provides another limit. Indigenous writers like Dallas Hunt and Billy-Ray Belcourt—both from different places in northern Alberta—have their stories to tell. I want to highlight the importance of reading their work. Closer to my own life, too, is the fact that many of my family members will have their own versions of events that might differ from mine. I try to be careful to speak from my own perspective rather than speak for others.
I like the idea that writing is a map. I am drawn to think that memory might serve as a way of listening to the past to negotiate the present and future. What did you find challenging in trying to write with purpose and clarity?
So many things are challenging in writing with purpose and clarity! Writing is slow, hard work, always. This book is also inflected by the circumstances of its creation—which is to say, by the fact that it was written, for the most part, between January and June of 2020. The pandemic impacted my writing in many ways. Those impacts link to questions of mapping and memory. I spend time trying to describe, in a map-like way, the lands about which I write. And memory is a complicated thing. Two pieces of the book that bring this issue together are the brief “prelude” and “coda” that open and close the book. The prelude and coda consist of sounds that I experienced during that six-month period. Many of those sounds are related to the pandemic, while some are particular to my experience of the time. When I go back now and read those pieces of the book, I find myself in this weird state of both forgetting and remembering the sounds of the beginning of Covid. There are sounds that I know I witnessed, but that I can’t quite remember—almost like I’ve deliberately forgotten them. I suspect that it’s linked to the traumatic experience of the pandemic, that it’s unprocessed trauma of some sort. I’m not quite sure. But writing through my family histories, my experiences of the land, and the rise of the pandemic has required a lot of thinking through both mapping and memory.
In your book, you spoke about the language of industry and industrial time. This got me thinking about the language of survival and people living in precarious conditions. To what extent do you consider listening a privilege?
Time is such an issue, and yes, listening is a privilege. In Alberta, like most everywhere, people are struggling. Precarity is a constant condition for so many. And the message always seems to be about speed. Work faster, earn more, escape financial hardship. Who has the time to listen? I would like to make it possible for more of us to be able to do so, because I also believe that listening can afford us the possibility of recognizing the ways in which the culture of speed—what I refer to as industrial time—is hurting us, if not killing us, as well as our non-human kin. I think that we should continue to ask questions about why we are not being invited into a practice of listening to the world around us—why our hearing is being taken up by interruptive sounds—because the sounds that we do hear shape our understandings of the world and our experience of it. I have not solved this problem, but I believe, in the final instance, that listening is a profoundly political act.
Uche Umezurike is an assistant professor of English at the University of Calgary. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Umezurike is a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems. He is the author of Wish Maker (Masobe Books, 2021) and Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griots Lounge Publishing, 2021). His poetry collection, there’s more, is forthcoming from the University of Alberta Press.