'Galloway was amazing': Toronto author's short-story collection gives readers another view of Scarborough
Writer wanted to depict suburb 'as a place that feels warm,' to counter its portrayal in the media
Scarborough is having a bit of a literary moment. The Toronto suburb features prominently in the latest works by a handful of authors, including Téa Mutonji. Scarborough's Galloway neighbourhood, where Mutonji in part grew up after emigrating from Congo, serves as the backdrop in the 24-year-old's new short-story collection, Shut Up You're Pretty.
Mutonji, who was named emerging writer of the year in 2017 by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization, spoke with Matt Galloway on CBC Radio's Metro Morning Thursday. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Matt Galloway: This started as an assignment?
Téa Mutonji: Kind of. In the creative writing minor at UTSC [University of Toronto Scarborough], a lot of our classes were based on us creating a full-fledged manuscript. So in some ways I did play with the ideas of these characters early on. But I think for the specific collection as a whole, I was actually writing a few poems.
MG: Poems? How do poems end up turning into short stories?
TM: The poems had too much to say. It's too long, there's too much conversation, it's too narrative. So I started to stretch them out a little bit and then I was getting further and further away from the initial intention. So they became short stories.
MG: Tell me about Loli [the book's protagonist]. She's a firecracker.
TM: She really is. I think she kind of woke up one day and was like 'I want to experience life fully in every way.' And as she's starting to do that I guess she realizes that all of her dreams of living fully are coming true, and perhaps in ways that she didn't expect. So she kind of goes through a lot of different emotional curves that she doesn't know how to process, and perhaps doesn't ever really.
MG: Where does she comes from? It's always dangerous to suggest that someone draws from their own personal experience in fiction. But how does she appear in your mind?
TM: I think for me she's more a collection of voices from conversations with friends, from reading different articles, from watching movies. And I was kind of playing with the big themes that I was seeing as a recurring experience that a lot of women were having. Not specifically women of colour, but just in a general standpoint millennials or women in the 21st century, women that have grown up in this particular area of Scarborough. And I wanted to make a character that was universal but that was also unique and going through her own personal journey.
MG: What is it that she goes through that rings true to you?
TM: Loss of identity.
MG: What does that mean?
TM: Not knowing who she is, especially when competing with who people are telling her who she is. So trying to find herself within all these different roles that she's being — I won't say forced to play — but definitely exposed to. And her just not knowing which one fits best.
'Galloway was fun'
MG: There are characters that run through this book as there would be in any collection of short stories. But it does feel like Scarborough is a character in and of itself. Tell me about writing about the place that you were living in?
TM: It's really interesting why I picked specifically Galloway. My family moved to Oshawa, we were pretty far north then. I grew up in a pretty much white suburban area. And when I came back for my undergrad and I would tell people with a lot of excitement 'oh yeah I grew up in Scarborough, I was in Galloway,' and their reaction was to pity me almost, to be like 'oh poor thing.'
MG: To pity you? Why?
TM: Because I grew up in Galloway and there was a lot of stigma associated to it that I didn't know of.
MG: That comes out in some of the stories, as well. People are talking about what happens in their neighbourhood but also how that's perceived in the wider city.
TM: Right. And I was like, 'What do you mean? Galloway was amazing. Galloway was fun.'
MG: What was good about it?
TM: Community, I think. Also family. All the kids, specifically. We kind of treated each other like siblings, and I mean I have a lot of siblings, so that probably also is a factor why I navigated toward that specific experience as opposed to an alternative one. But I just remember how easy it was to walk around the neighbourhood and to say hello to any kid and end up at their house for dinner for no reason.
'I don't consider it having a moment'
MG: Given that, why was it important for you to tell the stories of your community through these stories, to set it there? Because you could draw on that, but you actually animate the community in some way and try bring that special light to it. Why was it important for you? Do you feel like some sort of ambassador for the community?
TM: I think in some ways now I have to say so, definitely. But beyond just Galloway, Scarborough, the decision to base it off there was because I felt that it could complement Loli's character. Because my understanding of Scarborough — having lived there for most of my life and having also lived elsewhere — is how people talk about Scarborough is very different than what it feels like to be there. I just moved downtown and I feel a lot less safe here than I did.
TM: Yeah. Perhaps because I was used to being in Scarborough, I can't really pinpoint, but that's one of the main reasons why I wanted to create Scarborough as a character, as a place that feels warm as opposed to how it's portrayed in the media.
MG: We're seeing ... that that part of the city is now getting it's shine, it's getting the attention it deserves. Do you feel like you're part of that, whether it's a movement or just an initiative to try and make sure that people who perhaps aren't from Scarborough will think differently about that part of the city?
TM: I definitely hope I am. When I first started writing my stories that wasn't my intention mostly because I wasn't aware of the movement just yet. Being in Scarborough, I'm aware of the culture and I'm aware of the literature there and because I'm used to it I don't consider it being new and I don't consider it having a moment. That's really for an outside perspective. And so when I was writing these stories, they just felt natural, they just felt real. And once they were done and I realized how they could fit in this new canon, I was like, wow I hope it does in some way help or promote or encourage in some ways.
MG: Will you be moving toward novels, is that what's next?
TM: Definitely. I'm fully deeply already in it. It's a lot of fun. It's a lot different.
With files from Metro Morning