Books·Why I Write

Téa Mutonji on how she authentically writes diversity as an author of colour

CBC Books' Why I Write series features Canadian authors speaking on what literature means to them.

Born in Congo-Kinshasa and based in Toronto, Téa Mutonji published her debut book Shut Up, You're Pretty in the spring of 2019. The short story collection traverses the vibrant inner-worlds of women, exploring themes of race, class, migration and femininity as they collide in Scarborough, Ont. 

CBC Books named Mutonji a writer to watch in 2020.

CBC Books talked to Mutonji about why she wrote Shut Up, You're Pretty.

Looking at womanhood

The main themes in the book to me really centres around womanhood — not womanhood as a personal journey but often as a collective whole. I don't think it's possible to be a woman and not be influenced by another woman.

I don't think it's possible to be a woman and not be influenced by another woman.- Tea Mutonji

I really wanted to test the limits, the boundaries and the sometimes toxic dependence of those kind of relationships. That was definitely the biggest theme for me, personally."

Emotional labour

"There is a large amount of emotional labour that comes with being a writer of colour. In my experience, the second I published my book, the workload of that identity tripled. I was now having these discussions on immigrant livelihood — and on what it means to be a person that belongs to one country but to another as well.

"Now I'm having it professionally and on a professional level. I've having it in network circles but I'm also, surprisingly, having it now in my personal life. My friends would hear an interview that I did or read my book and were like, 'You lived where?'

There is a large amount of emotional labour that comes with being a writer of colour.- Tea Mutonji

"And these are things that I guess I never felt the need to necessarily talk about. So I've come to a point where I'm 25 and I'm suddenly exhausted. Like everything is just tiring. 

"And then I learn about emotional labour. Which I have, of course, learned from fellow black writers who told me, 'You've got to make sure you're not overdoing it.'

"'You have to accept boundaries.'"

Téa Mutonji talks to Shelagh Rogers about her Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize nominated novel, Shut Up You're Pretty.

Defining success as a writer

"I hope people take away from the book the balance in life. I try to look at motherhood through the eyes of balance — when it's good and when it's not so good. I really hope that people can find the balance in their lives through reading this book.

"I haven't really thought much of what success would look like. If your goal is to be a writer and you get up in the morning and you write, I do think that is success enough for me!"

Téa Mutonji's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

The CBC Books Why I Write series features authors speaking on what literature means to them. You can see all the episodes here.