Twenty-four-year-old Téa Mutonji‘s book, Shut Up You’re Pretty, was recently shortlisted for the 2019 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, valued at $50,000.

Mutonji is a poet and writer who was born in Congo-Kinshasa and currently lives in Scarborough, Ontario. She was named emerging writer of the year by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization in 2017, and Shut Up You’re Pretty is her debut short story collection. Tinged with pathos and humour, the punchy, sharply observed stories interrogate the moments in which femininity, womanness, and identity are not only questioned but imposed. The jurors described this book as “a fiercely intelligent collection about the inner lives of young women.”

We chatted with her this week.

SDTC: What was happening in your life while you were writing the stories for Shut Up You’re Pretty?

TM: My life was at an all-time rollercoaster of letting people go and reconciling with my body and soul from a few years of toxic and abusive relationships and environment. I didn’t know it at the time. This only became apparent to me once I finished the manuscript and submitted my final draft early this year. I came out of hiding, having not yet recognize I was in total isolation mode, and the people in my life said, “Hello again, so nice to see you.” I can be very performative, and that sometimes means detaching from what I’m really feeling and experiencing. I’m more honest today, and less afraid of admitting when I need help or when I’m in pain. Writing these stories allowed me to slow down on my personal life and make conscious decisions of where I want to go moving forward. I don’t look back at it like a negative experience though it might not have been the healthiest. I look at it like the start of something truly wonderful.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

I hope that readers contemplate the beauty in female friendships, surrendering, and taking control of your own circumstances. I hope Loli gives people much to think about.

Who/what is commanding a lot of attention in your life lately?

People! People I have lost or people I walked away from, and especially people with whom we said goodbye many years ago. It’s been good material for my poetry but also distracting from my path and journey. I recently found that the best way to deal with that is to just not deal with it, if that’s what the body wants. This goes against my nature/philosophy. I’m obsessed with seeing everything through, having every conversation, understanding every argument to every point of conflict. Letting go in this regard hasn’t always been easy for me but through boundary training, I’m finding that it’s possible to have healthy interactions even when they are unpleasant.

What issue do you wish people took more seriously?

My country has been in a constant state of pure decline. Like, Congo is dying and it doesn’t feel like anyone cares.

What have you learned about yourself in the past year?

I learned that I’m still me! The last five years have been pretty heavy, mental health wise, emotional wise, and I lost interest in many things/people I loved. A lot of who you are is what you do repeatedly. This year I got back into doing the things that make me feel alive. I joke now to my friends that this was the year “Stella Got Her Groove Back” and in this metaphor, I am Stella! What I learned about myself this year was that I was never lost. I was here and present all along. This answer feels very much like the kind of shit a millennial poet would say and I am not sorry about it!

What is fun, little-known fact about you?

I am a musical freak! Oh my Glee-ing heart. If I could turn my life into a musical I would. My natural mood is that I’m humming and singing a song. I am a terrible singer, but I insist on singing anyways.

What book/film/show have you connected with recently, and what about it appeals to you?

Book: Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. I like the realness, the confusion, the mundane, the boredom and the excitement in the narrator’s voice. It reminded me of daily interactions I have with myself. I also read this book while I was considering rather motherhood was something I wanted to aim to achieve. This sort of thinking can get to you at any age, and I was very curious to know how at 24, all of a sudden, I was debating motherhood. Shortly after, I heard about this book and I thought: sometimes books come to you when you need it the most!

Film: Hustlers. This movie on female friendships, codependency, sex-workers and intimacy really hit home. [spoiler*] I didn’t feel good watching the women use and manipulate the men as they did, and my heart get rising uncontrollably. I’m probably going to sit in that feeling for a bit before I make any conclusions on it.

Instead of show, music: Ariana Grande’s album Thank You, Next is probably one of my (my ancestors will look down on me for saying this) favourite album ever. If you listen closely, this album has some real, true, deep heart to it. Adding the excitement and extravaganza of pop music softens the blow. This is an woman singing about and against her trauma, and doing it in such a way to inspire reconciliation. It doesn’t hurt your heart. It’s saying: keep going, keep going, keep going, and dance while you’re at it. I’m obsessed. 

What’s the worst piece of career/life advice you’ve been given?

Someone who clearly hates me told me to get straight bangs and I did. As you can imagine, for reasons most likely related, we have lost touch! Beyond that, I’ve been spoiled with excellent mentors, and a great intimate circle of friends and family, and none are big on giving advice because a) I’m not big on receiving it and b) I like to explore my circumstances on my own and everyone has always respected that. I’ve always been good at making my boundaries clear. I ask for opinions but not often for advice. I don’t usually get bad advice because I evaluate who I seek this from. Good people can give bad advice so you don’t ask advice from good people, you ask from someone who has the lived experience to offer insight beyond philosophical understanding.

What’s your motto at the moment?

“No more trauma; no more drama.” Translation: I am no longer focusing on trauma, rather in conversation or in writing.

What are the qualities you like least and more about yourself?

Least: I over explain everything! and I often feel the need to defend myself. Instead of a two-liner texts that says “here’s exactly how I feel,” I’ll use a lot of words and might actually trying to understand what I feel while interacting with you instead of doing that work before.

Most: I aim to understand more than I aim to be understood. And in doing this, I also am very self-aware and have made it my life goal to live a kind of life where I am always in the business of bettering myself, healthy living and encouraging that in other people too. I think I’m just a loving, up-beat optimistic who is also very up front about reality.

Rewind five years. What advice would you give yourself?

Maybe don’t try every joke because they’re not all fun. And also: you are not the problem. Actually, I would tell my old self to read the poem “The Type” by Sarah Kay until every single line became her religion.

What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?

This year, I fell in love. I didn’t do it very well, but I take solace in knowing that I am capable of loving an intimate partner and receiving love in return. I didn’t really know that before.

What childhood memory makes you laugh out loud?

I used to sit my family in the living room and put on a show for them. My dad entertained the idea that I could be a pop or jazz singer. He would coach me and record me singing to Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. We both knew I was a terrible singer. We all did. But something about the show made us feel connected.

What unnecessary object would you love to own?

Why not another goddamn journal I will never write in because I already have 20.

What tip, technique or hack has made your life better in the past year?

Let go of people who do not make you feel good on the inside. They don’t have to be toxic or abusive. They can just be people who don’t have your best interest in mind, or people who’s energy does not merge with your energy. Either way, do not be afraid of letting go of people, places, concepts, materialistic things. Anything that kills your vibes.

What outfit makes you feel the most you?

I am most powerful in blue jeans, white shirt and an heel.

Describe your ideal Saturday scenario.

I work as a waitress and I actually really enjoy going in to work on Saturdays (or any weekend night). This means I’m very comfortable with my standard, brunch, reading and than work until 3 a.m., routine. If a perfect Saturday without work: it would start with coffee followed by an exercise class (I’m into boxing and strength training). Then, brunch with my friend Ashley and her daughter (lowkey, actually my daughter) Blake. Last summer, we went to every signal breakfast place in all of Ajax or so we like to believe. Post brunch, I would lock myself in my home to read, write, colour or clean. The city comes alive on Saturdays in ways that do not interest me so I like to avoid it. At night, I’ll make dinner and would be extra excited if I’m cooking for myself and a group of friends. One thing that has remained consistent in my life is that I always find time to watch a movie on Saturday, magically. A perfect night ends with a great story.

Who has surprised you lately?

Myself? I mean, I’m establishing boundaries, figuring out healthy work and life balance, and connecting well with everyone I hold dear. Life today is very good.