Téa Mutonji is the author of the new story collection Shut Up You're Pretty. She was born in Congo-Kinshasa, and she lives in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada.
Q: You've said, "Shut Up You're Pretty feels like the recurring theme of every story in the book." Why do you think that theme emerged throughout the collection?
A: By the time Loli gets to the titled story, she has learned to accept the circumstances of her life as deterministic. She internalizes all the bad in the world, as being the bad inside of her. But most important, the way she attaches herself to certain concepts, ideas, roles or identity.
That to me feels like the repeated trope throughout the stories. Sometimes she is domesticated, sometimes she is wild, sometimes she is slut shamed. And each time, she performs the role wildly.
Q: A review on thestar.com said the collection "doesn’t offer a particularly hopeful view of women’s options." Do you agree with that assessment?
A: I think that there is hope but barely and that it comes really in the very end with the final story. And I also feel like that’s not enough. And I can say with absolutely certainty, I’m not the same writer I was when I wrote these stories.
To me, that means that hope is fluid. You can find it anywhere. You can take a small amount of hope and let it be enough to feed an entire village. I hope these stories do that in some ways.
Q: Each story in the book features the same narrator. Did you consider writing a novel rather than linked stories?
A: I almost did! But the power short stories give you, I didn’t feel I could achieve it with a novel. So much of SUYP is in the subtlety. It’s in the things that are left unsaid. It’s in the quick jump and space between each story.
I like to think I left room for readers to fill in the blank, and novels don’t give you this kind of freedom. This forced collaboration between text and reader.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I think when I wrote the book, I really wanted to have as many stories as possible with a person of colour. And then, I wanted to really get inside a world we all know exists but don’t often interact with it. I wanted people to feel a bit opened.
I wanted to teach one person one new thing they didn’t know. I feel a bit different about that now. Today, I want people to use my book as a vehicle for discussion on poverty, sex work and sexual assault. I don’t know if there’s necessarily a life lesson in there, but I hope there’s something worth talking about.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a few completed manuscripts, both in poetry and novel format. But I’m working on healing and giving myself a break to rediscover the joy in life. I guess, to be more blunt: I am working on my relationship with myself. Sometimes, writing can get in the way of that.
I am hoping to publish either a poetry collection or a novel next. But given the fact that I work in multiple media, I’ve learned to stop planning and start living.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Every day, my book teaches me something new about life. I wonder if that’s true for all authors. If they return to their own work and discover something new about themselves, or their ability to create, or the world. I wonder if there’s a way to spread that feeling wildly.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb