#WOTSAuthorChat with Téa Mutonji

The following is a transcript of a twitter thread with @teamutonji about her debut story collection Shut Up You’re Pretty, edited for maximum blog-readability. If you would like to interact with the thread on Twitter, click here: Téa Author Chat

WOTS: Hi Téa! It’s great to chat with you! We had a great time at your book launch [for Shut Up You’re Pretty] last Friday. Let’s get right to it – the main character of your stories, Loli, breathes off the page. How did she first come to you, and what was your process in developing this character?

TÉA MUTONJI: [It] was so good meeting you Rebecca! Thank you for coming. Loli came from a series of writing exercises and workshops while studying CW fiction class with Daniel Scott Tysdal. I notice that submission after submission, I seemed to always be exploring the same protagonist, same attitude, goals and needs. Specifically, all my stories were also based in Galloway. Binding them so they could be recurring and consistent was done during the editorial process. By the time I was ready to submit to Vivek, I felt I had a whole person fully realize to work with.

WOTS: The setting really pulled the collection together! Scarborough has always had a vibrant cultural scene, but you’re one of the writers that is opening the door and making the rest of the city (and beyond!) notice. What is your favourite thing about Scarborough?

TM: I love Scarborough for its people. I grew up in a predominantly white environment so coming to Scarborough in 2012 was with a huge culture shock. I liked how, for the first time since being a kid in Scarborough, I felt at home. “Diversity” is a concept I only started to consider when looking back at my high-school experience and noticing the lack thereof and especially when I began publishing in canlit. There’s so much good bodies in Scarborough, some would say, a family thing between neighbours. I agree with that sentiment fully.

WOTS: Sounds like a very connected community! Going back to that group of writers, including David Chariandy, Carrianne Leung, Catherine Hernandez, and Dr. Adrian Deleon – can you speak to some of the connections and dissonances between the Scarborough in your works?

TM: I look to look at it was though a linear timeline, Carrianne’s book, then Catherine, than mine, and David’s follow and Adrian concludes it. We’re looking at different inter-communities in Scarborough through historically different times. It’s almost like mapping Scarborough through the years. With each of our work, we’re seeing immigrants settling in this wild city to become people. And they do, and they find each other, and so they stay, they die a little and they are consistently born again.

WOTS: That’s a really beautiful way of wording it. We’re big fans of Dr. Adrian’s transit adventures here too! Speaking of [friends who are authors], mentorship has played a role in your genesis as a writer, especially with your publisher VS Books. What was that experience like, and would you ever consider becoming a mentor?

TM: I don’t believe it’s possible to exist in this body (black, queer, survivor, refugee) without being a mentor to somebody. Even when avoiding the labour of it, I do it unconsciously. With Feel Ways, even now just talking to people who are interested in submitting a lot of the conversations we’re already having is about what is canlit, what does it mean to write a [non-fiction] text that’s not necessarily a memoir. It doesn’t feel like labour, it feels like this inherent duty look out for my neighbour. All this I learned entirely from Vivek [who] has done as much for me as an individual than for me as a writer, if not more. It is just not everyday you get to closely watch an artist passionately create without fear of creating. That changes a person for sure. I can only hope to inspire people like that.

WOTS: The work Vivek Shraya has done to lift up her community is so impressive! I want to hear more about this new project you’re working on too! What can you tell us about the new anthology Feel Ways you’re working on with Dr. Adrian and Natasha Ramoutar?

TM: It’s going to be lit. We go to these canlit readings and it’s lonely. I don’t know if it’s lonely because everyone in Toronto canlit seem to know each other, or if it’s just lonely because of the lack of (Dionne Brand will roll her eyes at me for saying this) diversity? So I think with Feel Ways we’re imagining a room where we really can reject this and say, “diverse from what?”

WOTS: I remember you speaking about this at the book launch, how it felt to begin seeing other authors from your community and feeling less alone. What are some ways you think CanLit can make those events feel more welcoming to new authors & a more diverse audience?

TM: Toronto artist has this competitive nature that I don’t think people really talk about. I wonder if that’s specific to young, emerging writers because publishing has just gotten more exclusive over the years? I found I turned to a lot of more seasoned writers for advice, guidance, and just support.

What we need more of: Casey Plett won the Amazon award and she was fucking trending!!! Like the whole world just kind of lit up for her and that’s what we need more of. Seeing Ian Williams and Joshua Whitehead just be her biggest supporter[s] warmed me. I really felt like, “cool, there’s hope here. There are people doing the work and trying to dismantle a pretty bruised system.” I hope to see more and more of that!

WOTS: Ahhhh us too! Maya & David couldn’t stop talking about that moment. I think we’re in a really exciting time for CanLit where there’s this groundswell of new voices. I come from the sci fi/genre world and I see the same thing happening there.

We’re totally off script. I want to talk more about this and Shut Up You’re Pretty and then give you a chance to shout out your faves.

Who or what inspires you when you’re feeling blocked?

TM: for me, writer’s block is a matter of fatigued. Whenever I feel like, I know it’s my body telling me I need to rest or take it easy. So I don’t actually visit other’s work. I just go away from it altogether. When I’m done a project though, I get super excited to read: Roxane (one n) Gay, Heather O’Neil, and I always go back to James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, pretty much religiously. I also like reading journals and discovering voices new to me. I read every issue of Room, specifically.

WOTS: The post-project book binge is a critical part of the creative process for me, too. Okay, one last Q to wrap things up (I could chat all day! You’re awesome!): Do you have a favourite story in the collection?

TM: Tilapia Fish and Tits for Cigs. But more so Tilapia Fish. After I wrote this story, that’s when I knew I had a thing, a real tangible thing.

WOTS: That must have been such a thrilling feeling. Amazing.

Thank you so much for chatting with us today, Téa! We’re big fans of your work and can’t wait to follow along for your future projects like Feel Ways!

TM: Thank you, thank you! This was a lot of fun!


Following this conversation on Twitter, we received a glowing book review from one of Tèa’s readers, Jennifer:

In Tea Mutonji’s bold, fierce collection of stories about Loli we ride the rollercoaster existence a young, newcomer refugee now in Galloway in Scarborough, Ontario who is originally from Congo. In “Shut Up You’re Pretty” Loli’s simple but complicated existence we hear of a mother who used to sing but doesn’t anymore, a father who’s barely there and the influence of Jolie, a fierce the larger-than-life character. Loli is lovable in her vulnerable, insecure self that’s full of curiosity and false bravado. If the reader wants to tell Loli to slow her roll, or reach out a hand to save her, the defiant protagonist would probably respond that she’s basically a woman.

The writing is raw. It spares you no detail. Parents of good, Catholic school girls would be scandalized at what’s happening in these streets. It’s not just tits for cigs. There are tender glimpses of family rituals, weddings, university life and cooking tilapia fish. Her queer existence is as much a part of her saga.

Did I already say that the stories made me sad for Loli? Because it’s not clear that she experiences that deep inner joy or acceptance or feels really safe and truly loved. However, that’s the lived experience of more than half the world. I’m guessing, but happiness (and love) can be elusive – especially if you don’t know where to look.

By the end of the stories, Loli is right. She’s a woman. A strong woman who has lived, loved and survived. The fact that she is pursuing sobriety gives me hope that maybe she’ll be ok for the next round of stories, if Mutonji wants to write about her again.

– Jennifer Are

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