Born in Congo-Kinshasa, Téa Mutonji now lives and writes in Scarborough, Ontario. She was selected as emerging writer of the year (2017) by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization.
Mutonji’s collection of linked short stories, Shut Up You’re Pretty, came out in 2019 and was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada, a Publishing Triangle Award winner, and a Prix Trillium Award winner. It’s set in Scarborough, Ontario and centres around a narrator named Loli, an immigrant from Congo. Each vivid and timely story crosses a pivotal moment in Loli’s life as a young woman in Canada.
Téa Mutonji is interviewed by Alli Vail
This interview has been lightly edited for length.
Alli Vail (AV): I quite enjoyed the juxtaposition of the title Shut Up You’re Pretty (which feels like such a throwaway teen-girl phrase) with the stories themselves, which really delve into some of the “ugly” moment women face at various points in their life: growing up too quickly, rape, unexpected pregnancy, predatory men, gaslighting, and more. What was it like exploring these topic and themes in this collection?
Téa Mutonji (TM): They weren’t actually intentional. It’s funny, because when I wrote Shut Up You’re Pretty I didn’t know what gaslighting meant. It wasn’t part of my vocabulary. It wasn’t a buzzword like it is today. I started writing this book pre #MeToo so a lot of it was not intentional. I didn’t have a theme in mind. I just was really focussing on how I wanted to tell this one person’s story and I wanted it to be honest, based on what I know are the big struggles that you experience as a young person growing up in a specific body, in a specific environment, with a specific set of circumstances. I was focussing on that.
All the themes that came out felt really natural to me. I began from a place of “what would become of a person if they spent their whole entire life being told what they are, and what they’re worth. How would they internalize that?” That was my main goal. Everything else was very accidental lessons that I’ve learned along the way and that I’m glad people are also pulling apart. But it would be false to say that was my intention. I got lucky that way, that I wrote something that resonated with a lot of people.
AV: Your characters reappear again and again in different short stories. What brought you back to these characters throughout the collection?
TM: I wanted this to feel like a memoir. I wanted this book to feel like a real person wrote this. That there was no Téa, there was only a Loli. Like Loli is the author of this book.
The reality is that the people who leave impacts in our lives, we revisit them. And sometimes we will try to find them in other people. Jolie never comes back again after her four stories. But through the quality of who she was and the relationship that she had established with Loli, Loli is always trying to recreate that intimacy with other people, unable to let go or separate herself from who she was when she had Jolie in her life.
When I think of my own life, friends I had in high school, I will maybe see them one day … there will be a circumstance in which I’ll have to see them again. They don’t just exit your life magically, and I really wanted to honor that.
I watch a lot of TV shows and I found that very interesting in sitcoms. You’ll have four seasons and the cast might change, and to me it always felt a bit dishonest that this person left your life and was never heard of again, was never referenced again. That, to me, happens in fiction, it doesn’t happen in real life and I needed this book to feel like real life. So, I needed these people to impact Loli, not just for the one story, but permanently, always, for as long as Loli has this mind and she’s operating with a specific psyche, I wanted the people who have influenced [her] to remain part of it, because to me that’s honest. I’m 27 and I still sometimes think of the mean girls from high school, and they still dictate my decisions sometimes. That’s just what it’s like being human, and being functional, and being self-aware and I wanted to give that quality to my character so she could feel less like a fictional heroine and more like someone you’ve definitely met throughout your life.
AV: Alienation and the influence of others’ perceptions of people weaves in an out of the stories, right from the beginning with the line in the first story Tits for Cigs: “She was responsible for my popularity and my likeability, because she herself was popular and well liked.” Another example is the line ‘”You just want to prove to everyone that you’re exactly as crazy as they say you are.’” in Shut Up You’re Pretty. Why did you explore the pre-occupation people seem to have with what other people think?
TM: That’s part of the title, but it’s also just something I wanted to give Loli specifically. That’s her character arc. The whole point, my thesis with this book, is ‘what would happen to someone who has lived her life so dictated by outsider influences?’ That was naturally supposed to remain consistent throughout the story. I wanted to see how she would grow with that. Would she always be stuck in the cycle? Will she break through? Will she start to negotiate what parts of herself she’s choosing versus the parts are given to her by other people? That was my interest with this book. That was the journey that I wanted to go on. That’s why it’s so repeated and so common in the story. It really is the glue to me. Is it that she lacks self-esteem? What is it?
Even now, looking back, my opinion changes. Now I’m seeing Loli more as a passive girl who was super vive la vie about life and ran into some trouble. Sometimes, I look at it like ‘this is someone who was looking for love and never understood how to find it.’
I really was curious: [we] hear a lot about people who grow up not conventionally attractive and how difficult it is for them. I sort of wanted to be like ‘well people who grow up being told they’re attractive, they have their shit too.’ Being 12 years old and considered sexy is not fun in any world. But why do we pretend it is? I was curious about that and I wanted to exaggerate that reality. If you tell someone that they’re only worth what they look like or what they do for you, they might not ever think differently of themselves, and that was definitely the case for Loli.
AV: My favourite line out of all of them is: “There was just something so funny about childhood—how it attempts to prepare you for the slaughter. How it fails —how it is decorated like a nursery.” I was struck by how absolutely true this is and the writerly succinctness of this statement! Is childhood a rich ground for writers to draw upon for inspiration, as it does seem in some stories in your collection?
TM: In one way, there’s so much you can do because you can create with childhood. It’s an easy playing field. There are no rules, there is no responsibility; you don’t have an identity yet.
So, as a writer, and the mastermind of a story, that means you can go anywhere you want, versus if you’re writing a story about someone who is a lawyer, you will have a certain set of responsibilities to obey to because this person is existing in a specific world. With childhood, you don’t have those limitations.
On one hand, I think that’s the excitement of writing about childhood. You get to create an identity from scratch. On the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that everyone is a little fucked up by childhood. And stories that micro-focus on what that means, that’s exciting to me. Sometimes I navigate towards childhood because it makes me feel like I have a blank slate. It’s a nice white canvass and I can go wherever I want. Other times I’m curious [about] the way in which we live our lives and I know that the foundation of that comes from childhood.
With Loli that was interesting because I was focussing on common narratives you hear about immigrants or Black children, specifically Black girls, and I was sort of interested in rejecting them because … the ones I’ve been exposed to tend be a little bit limiting and a little bit boring. I wanted to start there purposefully so that I could arrive to an adulthood that doesn’t feel justified but that gives the reader [a sense of] ‘well, what are the patterns, what’s the line, when did this begin’. So that was a fun mapping quest for me. I had started with a timeline from age 6 to 26 and I was filling in the holes … I’m both a painter with the idea of childhood, but I’m also invested in the science of growing up.
AV: I noticed that Shut Up You’re Pretty is the first book in the VS. Books imprint, which is curated and edited by writer-musician Vivek Shraya and will feature work by new and emerging young writers who are Indigenous, Black or a person of colour. What was this like for you, to have your first collection published as the first one with this imprint, and to be working with an amazing talent like Vivek Shraya?
TM: I could never have wished for something different. I could never. You could give me the option to go back and republish this book and have sold to a big publisher with a $100,000k advance and I would have been like: “what I did was the right thing.”
Because the publishing industry is massive. There are new books getting published every day. To be relevant in the industry is not something you go into thinking you will have. That wasn’t even a conversation that either one of us was having. We weren’t thinking what’s going to happen post publication? We were just thinking what kind of writer do you want to be right now?
And I never thought that way until I started working with Vivek … That’s her way of practice. She’s constantly asking herself: who do I need to be for this story, for this moment, for this art piece? That definitely stepped into the way I started to work on my own projects.
A lot of the conversations I would have with Vivek at the beginning were really, ‘let’s pull back and figure out what you want to do first, before we get into what you have done.’ And thinking that way is really helpful because you look at your story like a globe. It’s 360.
And then there’s all the political stuff. The industry doesn’t favour women writers, young writers, writers of colour. There’s all these barriers that should have been much more difficult to face, but because I was working with someone like Vivek who was like, fuck the barriers, I went in with that attitude. I went in with I’m not going to care about the barriers, I’m going to do what feels right for me. That’s something I wouldn’t have had with anybody else. I couldn’t have been paired with someone who wasn’t Vivek because I wouldn’t have had that. I needed to work on my self-esteem and my mental health. I needed to become thick-skinned in order to publish a book like this, and I definitely wasn’t pre Vivek. I think I would have just gotten lost. I definitely don’t think I would have been confident enough to make the final calls on the stories. Vivek’s career is testament to who I want to be as an artist and that’s the difference. If I had to work with anyone else who didn’t have Vivek’s confidence … I wouldn’t have evolved that on my own, at least not that quickly.
AV: If you’re able to share with us, what are you working on next?
TM: I am working on two projects. I have written a memoir that I don’t believe will be coming out in this lifetime, at this stage. That aside, I have a novel. It’s going well. It’s a friendship novel. I feel like if you’re a fan of my writing, I feel like you’ll appreciate my novel. It’s better. I’m far enough in the project that I can confidently say I’m doing something I love. There’s moments where I’m editing where I’m like “I’m very proud of this section.” I’m four years older than I was when I joined the industry and that’s nuts. I’ve changed so much as a person, and my intentions have shifted and I’m excited to see where that takes me.