The Next Chapter

Why Téa Mutonji wrote about intense girlhood bonds and the beauty of Scarborough

The linked short story collection Shut Up You're Pretty follows a teen girl's coming-of-age after moving to Canada from Congo.
Shut Up You're Pretty is a book by Téa Mutonji. (Arsenal Pulp Press, Sandro Pehar)

This interview originally aired on Oct. 12, 2019.

Téa Mutonji explores the messy transition from childhood to adulthood in her first book, Shut Up You're Pretty.

A collection of loosely connected stories, Shut Up You're Pretty features Loli, a headstrong, resourceful and self-aware teenage girl who recently emigrated to Scarborough, Ont., from Congo. Loli is searching for happiness, but to get there she has to navigate her family, her friendships and her own shifting identity.

Shut Up You're Pretty won the 2020 Trillium Book Award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

Mutonji talked to Shelagh Rogers about writing the award-winning short story collection. 

Diverse experiences

"I was really cautious of readership while I was writing this collection. I didn't want to suggest that this was the experience of every young black woman. I wanted to make sure that the message wasn't, 'Hey, every immigrant woman that grew up in housing has gone through this.'

"If ever I experienced any kind of blockage, it was, 'Okay, are people going to misunderstand this experience? Are they going to think this is everyone's experience?' Sometimes I might even dramatize something to make sure that it's slightly absurd. That was definitely what I was thinking when I wrote her immigrant story. The ways we come to Canada, especially as refugees, will always be a unique story. If you were to ask any refugee, if it's not a terribly sad story, then it's probably completely hilarious. There's no in-between."

Scarborough the Good

"While I lived there, Scarborough, Ont., was a wonderland. There was always a barbecue or a dance party right in the middle of the complex. That is the number one memory I have whenever I close my eyes and think of Galloway. We'd also all get together and camp, just bring our mattresses outside and literally sleep under the stars.

Did I romanticize this whole place that I supposedly grew up in?- Téa Mutonji

"It was a total amusement park. Then we left Scarborough for a few years and I came back as a young adult for university. I was carrying this idea that I lived in Scarborough with a lot of pride, but whenever I would tell people that I lived on Galloway, just down the street from campus, they were sad for me — like, 'Oh, poor thing.' I was like, 'This is strange. This is not how I remembered it. Did I romanticize this whole place that I supposedly grew up in?' In my second year of university, I went back to Galloway and I walked around for a couple hours. The thing that first shocked me was that a lot of people that lived there when I lived there were still there. I had a completely different understanding of Galloway. All of a sudden I saw it for what it really was — definitely not nearly as bad as people made it out to seem, but I was taking off the rose-coloured glasses for the first time."

Girlhood friendships

"Oftentime, we forget to be individuals. We look at each other and we're like, 'How is the best way that we can be the exact same?' I feel like a lot of women have had that relationship. There's always one that leads the way and the other follows along. A lot of women that I've spoken to have had that experience early on, where their identity was formed by somebody close to them. For the most part, it's another girl the same age. The differences between them are usually so tiny. In the case of Loli and Jolie, I even made their names purposely close together because I did want to offer that confusion. The only thing that makes them different is their race. Beyond that, they identify as being one and the same.

This whole collection was meant to really showcase what women teach each other and what they give to each other.- Téa Mutonji

"This whole collection was meant to really showcase what women teach each other and what they give to each other. Combining that super early on at such an early age with those two characters felt really important to me."

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

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