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.
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.