Zahra Tootonsab

Introduce yourself... 

I graduated with a BSc degree in Life Sciences at the University of Toronto (2019) and double-majored in English and Biology. In March 2019, I published my debut poetry collection, titled "The Aftertaste". I am currently finishing my Master of Arts degree in the English and Film Studies program at the University of Alberta. In April 2020, I was awarded a federal scholarship by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to complete my thesis project. My academic interests are eco-poetry, eco-citicism, Canadian literature, Indigenous studies, and Black studies.

What are you researching and what do you hope comes out of your research?

I am researching the polluted rivers and lakes in Canada and their impacts on the communities living close to these polluted bodies of water—how water, land, and air pollution impact Indigenous and Black communities and poor neighbourhoods. I am using research, creative writing/art, and interviews to write about Canada's pollution emergency. I use the writings and creative works of Indigenous peoples and People of Colour as counter-arguments to modern media that insist these communities are not opposed to the pollution because they are building "prosperous economic futures" working with oil industries and factories. My research portrays how our relationships with our environments are damaging and harmful to nature, Indigenous peoples, and minority groups. Counter-arguments from Indigenous peoples and minority groups in Canada can change how we think about the physical environment. Our survival as a species depends on understanding our coexistence with nature.

How did presenting a Three Minute Thesis (3MT) help explain your research to the public?

Presenting a Three Minute Thesis (3MT) helps explain my research to the public because my research is a relatively new discipline in humanities and academia. My work is called research-creation. It is an approach to research that uses information from different sources and creative tools like poetry, performance, and art installations to innovatively represent information and ideas. Thus, my research methods can get complicated, and 3MT has helped me understand my research's main points and how I am presenting and working with this information.

What inspires you to do research? 

What inspires me to do research is the idea of being an advocate for nature and people affected by water, land, and air pollution. Through art-making (a combination of both research and narrative/lyric writing), my goal is to foreground the diverse ways we (human beings) can live with always-changing earth. Existing on earth requires ongoing research and advocacy, so micro-interventions into the current modes of ecological and social inequalities can occur.

What are three keywords important to your 3MT?

counter-arguments, art activism, healing with nature

How has your research changed during COVID-19? 

My research changed during COVID-19 because it made it difficult to interview people in-person and gather their stories and artistic works for my thesis. Hence, I had to find alternative ways to talk to people, for example, via Zoom, and I depended heavily on social media platforms and websites to gather information. My goal was to create relationships with the people I interview and get a sense of their community by travelling to the locations. However, the pandemic cancelled my trips, and I relied on Google Maps, Google Images, and social media to visualize the places. It was an interesting and different experience for me. However, I learned that even if I did visit these affected communities, I will not feel their emotions or magically understand their lives and histories. My research, along with the restrictions, helped me unlearn and relearn how to organize my thoughts, my writing, and my feelings. My poetic/artistic creations come from a position that respects and is mindful of Indigenous and People of Colour histories, perspectives, and works while being within the limitations of speaking from a settler voice/perspective.

If you had to dedicate your research to anyone from the past, present, or future, who would it be and why? 

I dedicate my research to "All My Relations," a phrase that Indigenous peoples use to encompass human beings' interrelatedness with nature and others. Specifically, I dedicate my research to the seen and unseen worlds, including the trees, the four-legged animals, the birds, the fish, the insects, our streams, our rivers, our lakes, our oceans, and our watersheds. I dedicate my research to the Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour living in Canada whose stories and artistic responses to living near/with polluting industries and their distinct modes of existing and surviving water pollution have helped shape my research. Lastly, I dedicate my research to my family and my supervisor, Sarah Krotz, for their ongoing support and love.