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Mentorship, Truth and Details: An interview with Téa Mutonji

Téa Mutonji’s Shut Up You’re Pretty is her debut short story collection and the first in Vivek Shraya’s VS imprint with Arsenal Pulp Press. “Téa’s manuscript stood out to me for its unexpectedness,” writes Shraya. “These were coming-of-age stories, yes, butevery ending was a punch in the gut—not unlike the experience of racialized girlhood.”


Both writers will be at the 2019 Spring edition of our festival, but before we sit down to talk with them in person, Ottawa poet Manahil Bandukwala interviewed Téa Mutonji to get a glimpse into the origins of the collection and to get a feel for Mutonji’s writing style.


MB: Hi Téa, congratulations on your debut collection! Your event at the Ottawa Writers Festival involves mentorship. Can you talk about your experience working with Vivek Shraya and how it shaped your book, as well as your literary journey?

TM: Thank you so much! It still hasn’t hit me yet, and I’m not too sure why! I don’t think I would have survived navigating CanLit any other way. I can’t imagine any other scenario involving me publishing without first having had the support and mentorship from Vivek. I can say with confidence that I’m an entirely different artist having now worked so closely with Vivek. A lot of what she was able to offer me was more on the personal side. Vivek has a lot of courage, strength, and trust in her work, and that’s something I’ve never really been exposed to. There is a bit of a self-deprecating culture among young Canadian writers, or perhaps the groups I’ve specifically explored. Vivek didn’t have that. Vivek redefined the relationship an artist may have with her work. And because she never shut down a single idea I had, and only encouraged me to explore it to its most raw and unexpandable form, I learned to love my own work. I think that’s the most important thing I’m taking away from this experience. I’m going to love reading these texts out loud. I’m going to love it all. I definitely didn’t have this sentiment at any point in my writing career.


MB: In an article on UofT’s website , you talk about how the inspiration for your collection was a long-form poem you wrote called “Pretty Woman.” How did the poem become the collection we have today? What was the process of translating poetry to short story like?

TM: The poem “Pretty Woman” is about a little girl realizing that because of the way she looks, she’s going to experience a particular narrative. In the end, her mother almost suggests that it’s true for every woman who looks like her (black, pretty, queerish, soft). Though I didn’t take much from this poem in terms of structure or narrative, I took this conflict between the inner self and the external self. I built this character, Loli, entirely based on this poem. The original manuscript was called Notes from a Pretty Woman, and it was a collection of short poems/maybe flash fiction prose, maybe observations on how having a fixed identity will cause certain narratives. Instead of an abstract, supposed narrative, I wrote actual, tangible, and concrete examples of what this all meant for Loli. The poem was actually my first publication, in 2014.


MB: The first line of “Women Talking” reads “The morning of my abortion, I ate a full meal.” Shut Up You’re Pretty is full of starting lines like these that just pull you in. How do you know when you have that good first line?

TM: This is from years of training under Andrew Westoll. He, as a professor, would urge us to start every story with a scene. A lot of us went for dialogue right at the top of the page. I usually went for a bald statement. I went for: “Last night I was raped and now today I’m awake.” (That’s an actual first line from a story I wrote during a class assignment.) A few other things I took away from Andrew: show don’t tell, excite don’t confuse, start at the middle. We worked on this short, final, direct writing together. I expressed really early on in my academic writing career that I didn’t like the thesis form of creative writing. I like to start at the end, perhaps. I like to start where the heartbeat has caught up.


MB: Lots of the stories in your book show snippets of the narrator’s life. Some are especially short, like “Tilapia Fish,” which is two pages long, yet I think that was my favourite story in the book. What makes a short story complete?

TM: I’m not necessarily sure what makes a short story complete. To me, it’s usually the end of a scene because I do have that ongoing format of writing stories as though they’re a scene in a very long indie film. I end every story the same way I end every poem: when I’ve said all that needed to be said. Sometimes, that means the story doesn’t end at all, but it just lingers between myself, the page, and the reader. And sometimes, I think that’s the most beautiful way to say goodbye. I think “Tilapia Fish” does that.


MB: What makes a good short story?

TM: Truth. To me, truth makes a good short story. With so much restriction, it would be such a disservice to everyone involved in the reading process (the character, the reader, myself) to have a story that lacks depth. That lacks the real juices of the human condition. Even a story entirely about robots, or flowers, or buildings has human condition. Human instincts. Human desires to feel and to unfeel.


MB: In an interview in Read Local BC, you talk about the subtleties in your story that a Congolese protagonist would notice that other people would not. Something that appears as representation is really just instinct – could you talk more about that?

TM: The question about scent was an intentional decision. I notice scent. I notice sound. I notice wrinkles, first. I had a friend in high school who once walked into my house, greeted my mother, and said, “Your house smells like Africa.” It wasn’t an insult; he definitely didn’t mean it like that. Mother and I took a big inhale and concluded that it was true. Palm oil boiling in the kitchen, fried plantain cooling in the dining room. We’re so used to so much conflicting sounds (baby crying, drama outside, cars, people walking) because of such thin walls, that we hear everything first. I don’t necessarily think I meant to say all Congolese people notice this, but I mean for sure that I personally do, and I think that’s contingent on the spaces I’ve occupied as a Congolese girl. Giving that to Loli was actually an accident. Something I’m just personally used to playing with. I love that she has that. It’s so true to her culture, in some ways.


MB: What’s next for you in terms of literary projects? What are you currently working on?

TM: Film! Well, I want to tell the tales of Loli and Jolie in a more accessible medium. I say accessible because my mother won’t read the book. English is just not her preferred way. And even if there was a French translation, she still wouldn’t read it because literature isn’t her preferred way. But she’d watch a film. Over and over again. And I love that. I want to give her that. There’s also a little (long) novel in my heart, and it’s taking up most of my time. It has a lot of love and hope in it. But in true personal fashion, I do push my characters boundaries again.


MB: Do you have anything else you want to add?

TM: Vivek is the absolute best mentor. Everyone needs to submit to her imprint or music grant. She will be there for you every step of the way and beyond. Even if there wasn’t a publication deal attached to this, I would say that very loudly. Nothing compares to developing the skills and patience you need to continuously work at your craft. Vivek gave me that. And also, now I think I can do anything. I think I can do film and write a play and travel the world. I guess I’m saying I’m not afraid of dreaming anymore.

Learn more and get tickets for our event with Téa Mutonji and Vivek Shraya.