Books·How I Wrote It

Why Téa Mutonji wanted her first short story collection to challenge what diverse literature is supposed to be

The Scarborough, Ont.-based author discusses her short story collection, Shut Up, You're Pretty.
Shut Up You're Pretty is a book by Téa Mutonji. (Arsenal Pulp Press, Sandro Pehar)

Shut Up, You're Pretty, a short fiction collection by Téa Mutonji, uses sharp prose and imagery to explore narratives of young women coming of age in the 21st century.

Mutonji, who was born in Congo and grew up in the Galloway neighbourhood of Scarborough, Ont. — where the book is set — weaves together loosely connected stories with themes of race, identity, sexuality and femininity.

Mutonji recently spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote Shut Up, You're Pretty.

The first steps

"I knew what I wanted to do, which is to create a collection of stories that were forcing certain identities upon certain people, but who were also very closely tied to Loli, the protagonist. 

"I first made a character chart. I made this list of experiences that Loli could potentially have. I jotted down different roles she could have played and different stereotypes that could have been attached to her.

"I started doing the same thing for the setting, Scarborough, which is in the east end of Toronto. I already knew the book was going to be based in Scarborough, I knew the city well enough that I could play with it in a way that felt realistic.

"I then realized that Loli and Scarborough had a lot in common. They both have that same conflict where people say one thing about it/them when it's completely something else. They both have a certain perception and a forced-upon identity that boxes them in. It's a narrative that Scarborough has historically fought to break out of. I thought it would be interesting for Loli to have that same dynamic and relationship."

The Scarborough setting

"I wanted the landscape of Shut Up, You're Pretty to be real because when you have a recognizable landscape everything else feels real. I was on Google Maps when writing each of the stories. I love when a story feels like a memory. For me, truth isn't in the narrative, it's in the details.

"I live in downtown Toronto now but I went back to Scarborough and I walked around. My biggest shock was how many people I grew up with still live there. I started to remember Galloway differently. It was an interesting feeling and I wanted to depict it through text."

Subverting expectations

"One of the stories in the book talks about a boy being beaten to death and the community's reaction, which was kind of a positive reaction as opposed to fearful. Instead of the characters being scared, they opened up their heart to celebrate the boy's life. In real life, that story never happened. I've never personally witnessed death that closely. But I took that concept and feeling of celebrating joy and life and put them in my book."

A single experience

"I was first writing these stories independently and I realized that I was writing the same character for the protagonist. I wanted to explore why I was doing that. I didn't want to write a collection of short stories about a young black woman living her life and have it be suggested that it was the experience of all black women. I did understand, however, that it would probably be regarded as such because we don't have enough young women of colour writing.

"I decided to keep it to one character so this could be viewed as one experience. That was important to me, to show that this is one woman experiencing different women in multiple ways and experiencing different experiences in multiple ways. This is not at all the experience of every person of colour, of every women, of every immigrant and of every person from that Galloway neighbourhood.

"Through wanting to do that, it became easier to write these stories. That decision helped me stay on track to write the book."

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

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