Téa Mutonji is an award-winning poet and writer. Born in Congo-Kinshasa, she now lives and writes in Toronto, Ontario, and was named emerging writer of the year (2017) by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization. Her debut collection of linked short stories, Shut Up You’re Pretty, is the first book in the VS. Books imprint, a series that is curated and edited by writer-musician Vivek Shraya featuring work by new and emerging writers who are Indigenous, Black, or a person of colour.
I met with Téa at a fusion gym/café in downtown Toronto on a sunny day in April. We discussed how her collection of linked stories plays devil’s advocate, casts light on women’s trauma, and highlights the mundane. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Kate Finegan: In your interview for Arsenal Pulp Press, you mentioned that “shut up you’re pretty” feels like the recurring theme for every story in the book. How does Loli’s appearance and the appearance of those around her inform her life story?
Téa Mutonji: I think that for her everything has always been about her looks. From the way she was raised, she was told, “You have to act a certain way, you have to look a certain way, you have to sit a certain way,” not only in her relationship with her mom but also with her friends. I think “shut up you’re pretty” is a statement that cages her into that identity. That’s how the stories are connected. In pretty much every story, she’s experimenting with a different identity that she doesn’t necessarily connect with but is being forced into. She’s finding herself in these scenarios where she says, “I just kind of stumbled into this one and now I guess I’m here without a clear sense of authority.”
KF: Yeah, it’s interesting how she ends up in these scenarios, just kind of falls into them, which is at odds with the workshop advice that your character needs to have agency—
TM: A goal? [laughs]
KF: And be the one that’s driving the story.
KF: But that’s not how life works, and I think it’s interesting to have a character who feels caged and reacts to things that are happening to her. So how did you go about creating a goal, a desire, and a driving force in the narrative without the character having a lot of control over her life?
TM: To me, the goal within every story is she’s trying to find herself. She at no point says, “I wonder who I am as a little girl,” but you do understand that that is the underlying goal basically for every story. I think because I gave so many reflective moments where she is thinking, “I don’t know what’s going on” or “I don’t know what I want,” that’s how the goal reveals itself. But it definitely was subtle and hidden, because I think that in life, that’s how things work out. We’re not necessarily sure of what we’re doing, but we’re doing it. I wanted to write a text that felt like true life—like a documentary. In documentary, there isn’t really a goal beyond telling a truthful story or illustrating a clear picture. That was my intention, and I was lucky enough that even though in short story writing that’s not a very common practice, Vivek and Arsenal Pulp Press were like, “Let’s do it.” I think if you read the book as a whole, as one text, Loli’s motivation is a lot more evident than in the individual shorter texts.
KF: Having a first-person narrator in a book whose title is Shut Up strikes me as a powerful statement, and a reclaiming of a silenced voice. Similarly, in “This Is Only Temporary,” Loli’s neighbors watch themselves being portrayed in this really stereotyped way by the city news following a tragedy. And it’s very striking—the news narrative is at odds with everybody’s reaction to the event, which is to keep their doors unlocked and support each other and become more open. How can literature fight these voyeuristic, damaging narratives of the “other”?
TM: I think literature just rejects the idea of the “other.” It plays devil’s advocate, or even puts a mirror up. Because obviously, the idea of the doors being unlocked, and the community coming together, in some ways is slightly exaggerated. But I was like, “I’m going to fight stereotype with stereotype. I’m going to give you this completely, almost unrealistic response to this traumatic event.” I wanted to create that kind of awkwardness. Just to get you thinking.
KF: In the Arsenal Pulp Press interview, you mentioned that being a girl and woman “sucks for the most part. But it also involves support from a lot of other women.” Loli’s support system is markedly gendered in this collection, with men often just dismissing her as merely pretty or even as “too black” at different points, while the women in her life view her in more holistic, supportive ways. Why was this important to you?
TM: Honestly, I crafted this character, and I wanted to give her a real, lifelong identity because I do think that that is also true to life. Loli just decided to experience the world outside of home at such a young age, and I wanted that to have a longer, lingering effect. I didn’t want that to belong in one story. I wanted it to be obvious over and over again. Because that’s actually how—at least as I read it—that’s how trauma works, and that’s how experience works, that’s how memory works, that’s how growing up works. You just keep evolving from one foundation. So I had to pick some things that would be uniquely hers that she would continuously live through throughout her life.
KF: And then surrounding her by many different women—
TM: Yeah, from the very beginning, she always has one girl friend, and she is wildly influenced all the time. If it’s not Mrs. Broomfield, then it’s Olivia, then it’s Jolie. And I wanted that to not stop with age. I wanted that to be true until the end.
Your influences will remain your influences, and I wanted that. I love this idea of women raising her. That’s why I killed off her dad so early! It was just because I didn’t want him around!
KF: Then you had a magnifying glass on what you really wanted and could focus on the women in Loli’s life.
TM: Yeah, I wanted to delete him. The more I edited, the more men I just kept deleting. It felt natural, like that’s the path that Loli would have taken. She never dealt with her obsession with Jolie from the beginning. And I felt that the most realistic way I could create that was to introduce Olivia, who acts as a foil to Jolie. So yeah, she’s easily fascinated by women.
And that’s why I ended with the mom. I grew up being raised by so many different older women—my mom has six sisters. I call them each Mom. That’s how I was raised. So I think motherhood is such a beautiful thing. But I also understand that your best friend can feel like your mother, and your first manager can feel like your mother, and if Loli was going to be falling in love with all these women and meeting all these different people, then that motherhood would just kind of stay consistent.
KF: One line that really stuck out to me is Jolie says, “family is family.” Family for Loli is quite complicated, but I see this collection as exploring the divisions between given family and chosen family, and the obligations and interconnections that come with both. What do you see as the role of family dynamics and tensions in your writing? And how does that relate to an individual’s trajectory?
TM: I think for Loli, specifically, very early on, she doesn’t actually explore her family life—almost barely. I think that that’s very true to the 21st century, how we as individuals, and I guess young adults, are exploring ourselves. We step away from our families, and we try to create our own. When Loli is with Olivia, the relationship becomes her everything, where she gets really swept away in that world. Creating that story definitely was like, “What is one of my favorite things about being a person?”. To me, it’s having these little moments of connectivity with other people. I wanted to create that because I feel like those little mundane things that happen every day get lost in short stories specifically. I think that that’s one of the things that makes family here such an important thing because living with a family is a very mundane experience. At some point, there’s nothing left to tell. Mom is happy or not happy; Dad is home or not home. At some point, family life is as simple as we’re having breakfast, and we’re having dinner. And I was really interested in creating that. I’m very interested in the mundane anti-climatic types of storytelling.
KF: Do you have any authors that you think about when you’re considering finding the artful moments in the mundane? Any writers that do that really well?
TM: I think Dionne Brand is the queen of that. I remember reading Theory immediately after I had finished writing my collection, and I was like, “Did anything even happen in this book? Why do I feel so inspired?”. I thought, “How amazing to conceive an entire narrative, where literally, there’s almost no real driving force,” and I was so obsessed with that idea. It is amazing. That is something I’m going to revisit in my writing. She does it so perfectly. Like, the protagonist is so obsessed with all the people that they meet. Aside from Dionne Brand, I’m a huge fan of Roxane Gay. Same thing, she has some really short stories that have literally no actual beginning or end, yet they feel so complete. I’ve always really liked that style. I like capturing a moment and it being the story and not trying to create anything more of it. Roxane Gay definitely does that quite a lot.
KF: You’ve said you’re trying to replicate real life, rather than the traditional kind of literary narrative. In your Arsenal Pulp Press interview, you mentioned that you want your stories to feel like memories.
TM: Yeah, I definitely wanted that. What captivates me the most about any kind of literary text is being able to connect and feel like you are suspended completely in the narrative. I like art that I can touch, something that’s very tangible. I’m not an abstract artist. I started with poetry, and I don’t write poems that are a puzzle. It’s very straightforward. I’m very simple with language. I wanted to be honest with my stories because that feels authentic to me, but it’s not everybody’s style. I hope it’s opening dialogue.
KF: How many standalone stories did you have before you decided this was all going to be one book, or did you conceive of it at the beginning as a series of linked stories?
TM: My very first story that I wrote, unrelated to this project, was “Tilapia Fish,” which felt like such a concluding story. I wondered if I could build an entire world that would bring me to the end of “Tilipia Fish.” But the first story that created Loli as a character was “If Not Happiness,” which I wrote for a fiction workshop class with Daniel Tysdal. The response to those two characters was such that I continued exploring different scenarios with those characters. There was a moment where the stories definitely could have been just Loli and Jolie, living in Galloway, but I wanted to explore so many other parts of womanhood, that with two young characters I just couldn’t do. I wanted to also go beyond the narrative of child abuse because I feel like sometimes when we think of trauma that women experience, we kind of stop at childhood, and we don’t consider everyday trauma. And I wanted to explore that for sure.
So that’s how I decided, “Okay, let’s take Loli out of her childhood. Let’s put her in a different setting.” I picked Loli over Jolie, even though Jolie was definitely the star of my collection at some point, because Jolie is a white cis woman, and I wanted a narrative that felt a bit more relatable and closer to me. So I definitely wrote each story with the intent of them being linked together. I wanted to see the growth within a character, and the growth is so silent, you almost don’t realize that she’s growing because she is, for a very long time, stuck in a negative outlook. I felt that that’s a truthful story to tell; it would be too cliché to be like, “And then she lived happily ever after.” I don’t believe that it’s that easy. So I didn’t want to make it easy.
Obviously, we end with “Tilapia Fish,” which is a lighter story, and it’s almost like she just forgot her entire life. It happens kind of out of nowhere. I wanted that because again, I feel like life does happen that way. You just wake up one day, you’re like, “Oh, wow, I’m totally done with this stage in my life.”
KF: It’s cumulative. Yeah. It’s like the snowball is rolling and rolling and rolling. And then suddenly—
TM: It just stops.
And that’s my relationship with pain. You feel it, you feel it, and then one day you wake up and you’re like, “Oh, wow, when’s the last time I felt that? I don’t remember.” And I felt that “Tilapia Fish” did that, so I wanted it to be its own island within these stories.
It was really interesting how when Vivek and I talked about it, there was no need to construct it. It was such a clear and obvious idea. For me and Vivek, our relationship was very easy in that we really understood each other as artists. I didn’t have to convince her of anything. She was like, “This makes sense, let’s do it.”
KF: You and I both love Heather O’Neill, a master of metaphors and similes. So I’m wondering, do you have a favorite metaphor or simile from your work?
TM: In “Tilapia Fish,” there’s a part where she goes, “It was what she [Loli’s mother] understood: here, we, buy. Words that meant mother, immigrant, fighter.” That was probably my favourite. Because what happens in the story is she deconstructs this idea of one word and one identity being the final one by giving three separate versions of it. I thought about these little things, and I wondered if anyone was going to catch it. A lot of my decisions were intentional; a lot of the writing didn’t feel like an accident, and most of my writing is an accident. But for this one I was like, “Can I kind of hide this little message in the story?”. And hopefully through the mother, it shines through. It definitely is subtle, but I think that’s because of my influences and literature. Like, I love Hemingway—such a loser for Hemingway. But I also love Heather O’Neill, who does the same thing, too. And again, coming back to Roxane Gay and Dionne Brand. These are all writers who make such subtle decisions at the very beginning and want you to see it again at the end; you start with a very small line about the mom no longer singing and no longer doing certain things. And then you end it with the mom singing and doing those things. That was very intentional. “Why are we talking about the mom all of a sudden, when it’s been a book about Loli?” That was a purposeful decision. So that’s how it was—a whole metaphor to me; you just have to find it.