The Chat with Téa Mutonji

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Vivek Shraya launched her imprint VS. Books with Arsenal Pulp Press to highlight bold work by new and emerging Indigenous or Black writers, or writers of colour. Scarborough writer Téa Mutonji’s debut collection Shut Up You’re Pretty is the first work to be featured.

Canisia Lubrin calls the collection “a chronicle of millennial malaise, gendered and seaming with a discontent that does not sleep on the status quo of any page. Téa Mutonji is a writer who is assured and measured with a style all her own, holding a hand up to greats like Hurston and Kincaid. She takes back the 21st century in this delicious feast of stories as vivid and taut as they are understated.”

Téa Mutonji is an award-winning poet and writer. Born in Congo-Kinshasa, she now lives and writes in Scarborough, Ontario, where she was named emerging writer of the year (2017) by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization. Shut Up You’re Pretty is her debut short story collection, and the first book published under Vivek Shraya’s VS. Books imprint with Arsenal Pulp Press.

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THE CHAT WITH TEA MUTONJI

Trevor Corkum: Congrats on your debut collection, Téa. Shut Up You’re Pretty is the first book to come out with Vivek Shraya’s imprint VS. Books. How does that feel, and what was it like to work with Vivek?

Téa Mutonji: Thank you so much! It feels surreal, exciting and, surprisingly, not nerve-racking. Maybe Vivek prepped me enough that releasing this specific book, given the content, didn’t scare me. I’m still at the “pleased with myself” stage of publishing, where I still can’t believe that I created something and put it out there. The joy of separating myself from the project, watching it become apart from me, has been very fascinating.

Vivek is an extremely patient and experimental mentor. She gave me the space to run wild with as many versions of these stories as necessary. But Vivek also taught me discipline, self-worth and what it means to take ownership of my voice. This was more than just a mentorship; this was the building of a friendship.

TC: Your stories are part of a new wave of great writing coming out of Scarborough in recent years. I’m thinking of Brother by David Chariandy and Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez. Why do you think there’s been such a focus on Scarborough literature recently? And how do you feel (if at all) your books are in conversation with these works?

TM: I’m not sure exactly how the focus on Scarborough took off, but I do think Catherine and David played a huge role. The work that’s coming out of Scarborough isn’t new work. The stories, the literature, the love, the support–all that is embedded in Scarborough culture. It just so happens that now, for whatever reason, everyone’s paying attention. To that I say, good, it’s about time.

What you get from Scarborough literature is that uncomfortableness, that hard-hitting evidence that this is life, and life happens fast, and it hits hard. But you also get this burst of love and community both in the stories we write and in the way we share them. I think my book fits right between Catherine and David’s. I can see how all the characters of our respective books could have once existed in the same timeline. I think of Darnell in my book—maybe he is Francis in David’s book. And maybe Bing’s mommy in Scarborough is the exact same mother Loli has in mine. Our texts aren’t necessarily connected by space; they’re connected by people.

TC: What writers did you most admire, growing up? Any writers, artists, or musicians who have influenced you in particular?

TM: Maya Angelou, Roxanne Gay and, yes, Ernest Hemingway. I didn’t read much of Vladimir Nabokov, but Lolita was one of the first English novels I read. I read it over and over from the age of fourteen until I was much more older to really understand it. I like the directness that Angelou and Gay have in their stories. I like how, often, they don’t feel the need to unpack the setting, because the setting exist with or without the reader. I definitely see how much of that motive has shaped the way I write. Heather O'Neill is one of my most recent favourites. I’m obsessed with her ability to make magic out of trauma.

TC: I admired the mix of humour and pathos that swirls through the stories. That’s a difficult balancing act. What did you learn about writing as you worked through this collection? Any tips for other emerging writers?

TM: On the personal side, not so much through writing these stories but through putting it out in the world, I learned that I’ve graduated from my melodramatic sad-girl attitude. I can understand how many people might read these stories and accept them as sad, truthful, even melancholic stories, but I don’t see them that way. To me, these stories are part of a life, they are beautiful in the way that they are sad, but they are not limited to that. I never saw writing as a therapeutic act, and I didn’t feel that writing these stories necessarily offered me any kind of reconciliation from a personal standpoint. But I do think that writing about trauma, regardless of whether you relate to said trauma, does take a certain amount of guts and liberation, and I didn’t know I was capable of that. I feel confident and I feel free and I feel proud. And a lot of those feelings come from my relationship with writing this book.

I do think that writing about trauma, regardless of whether you relate to said trauma, does take a certain amount of guts and liberation, and I didn’t know I was capable of that. I feel confident and I feel free and I feel proud.

TC: Now that your first collection is out, what’s up next for you, Téa? What new projects should we be looking for on the horizon?

TM: Vivek makes me feel like the sky's the limit, if that. The most for-sure project is a novel, something I didn’t think I would be doing so soon. It’s been a passion project for some time, and I feel very excited about the possibility. But I’m primarily interested in turning Loli and Jolie’s kinship into a segment of short films, or perhaps one feature film. I don’t think that their story is over just yet. I might not revisit it in writing but definitely through cinema or photography. Be on the lookout for more Jolie and Loli, for sure. I have a poetry collection that I would also be interested in placing within the next five years.

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Excerpt from “The Event”

Now that Jolie was turning fourteen, Gigi had gotten it into her head that she needed to help with rent. We lived in a subsidized neighbourhood and rent was mostly reasonable. The ones who couldn’t afford it might have a two-month grace period before the locks were changed and police started coming around the entire block. We collectively tried to prevent the latter from happening. It wasn’t uncommon for Mrs Broomfield to go door to door with a basket asking for money to help somebody in need. But nobody looked after Gigi anymore. Her addiction gave her magnitude and charm, and a good base for redemption. The heroin had only tired her out. Darkened her teeth and brightened her hair.

But we didn’t trust Gigi. It was just Jolie. It was just Jolie and me.

In the morning, we went out to find Dylan. We told him an event was taking place at the park. With a silent nod, we all knew what the event would be. Dylan had a very sober face, earnest and strong. And behind the dark circles under his eyes, I saw a little boy dreaming of a Jamaican waterfront. Dylan was sweet, sugar-coated.

In the evening, Jolie and I wore matching crop tops and sat facing each other at the park. There were three boys with Dylan, and we charged them each five dollars to watch us kiss.

The night went by quickly. Nobody asked for an encore. Nobody clapped or cheered or growled like we had expected. Everybody went on their own personal journey, and the intimacy was felt in a gaze. Jolie looking at me, me looking at Jolie, them looking at us.

The next day there were five of them. And on Friday there were six. That was a total of seventy-five dollars by the end of our first week. I loved Jolie. I loved her so much I told her to keep the money.

“The Event” from Shut Up You’re Pretty by Téa Mutonji. Published by VS. Books (an imprint of Arsenal Pulp Press) 2019.  Excerpted with permission from the publisher.

April 15, 2019
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