As Western’s incoming writer-in-residence, Téa Mutonji feels right at home, relating to students.
The award-winning poet and author is a student herself, currently pursuing her MFA in the low-residency creative writing program at NYU, where she was awarded the 2021 Jill Davis Fellowship in Fiction.
Mutonji was still an undergraduate when her debut short story collection, Shut Up You’re Pretty, was selected as the first title to be published under VS. Books, an Arsenal Pulp Press imprint curated and edited by writer-musician Vivek Shraya.
“I always call it the ‘American Idol for writers,’” Mutonji said of Shraya’s national call for work by new and emerging Indigenous or Black writers, or writers of colour. “You didn’t have to have any real credentials, you just had to have a book that felt right.”
Urged by her professor, Mutonji entered a collection of writing – poems, essays, short stories – based around a central character named Loli, and a central location close to Mutonji’s heart: Scarborough, Ont.
The Toronto district was Mutonji’s first home in Canada, when she and her family emigrated to Canada from the Democratic Republic of Congo when she was five years old.
“I love Scarborough,” said Mutonji, who was the editor of Feel Ways: A Scarborough Anthology, a volume of works by writers of Scarborough, created to shed light on the suburb’s myths and stories set in diverse immigrant neighbourhoods. “There is a sense of community that makes it a really special place, and the more I see other places, the more I appreciate how unique it is.
“Since I had written so much about girls and Scarborough in the past, I had a lot of material to work with. I gathered everything up and explained in my submission letter that I’ve noticed I have an ‘obsession’ with writing about the same theme.”
One month later, Shraya invited Mutonji for coffee. When Shraya shared she wanted to mentor Mutonji and publish her work, it came as a complete surprise.
“I had no dreams of becoming a writer at that stage,” Mutonji said. “My future was blank, I was floating without direction.”
“It felt like it was a movie. One minute I’m an undergrad just experimenting with my materials and here I was being told my work was worth exploring. It ‘360’d’ my life completely. Suddenly I had goals, a schedule. I was waiting for this moment. I just didn’t know it.”
Critical acclaim for Shut Up You’re Pretty
The stories in Shut Up You’re Pretty follow Loli, a Black Congolese girl, and her friend Joli, as they journey through childhood to become grown women. The book’s release in 2019 brought critical acclaim, signaling Mutonji as “a unique feminist voice in Canadian fiction”, with The Hamilton Literary Journal Review of Books deeming the collection a “must-read for all women that will be especially loved by those who are street-smart and racialized.”
When the book was shortlisted for the 2019 Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the jury called the collection “a fiercely intelligent, compelling piece of work about the fear and yearning of our youth.” It was named to several best-of-the-year lists, winning the 2020 Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and the Trillium Book Award.
Mutonji’s recently completed her first novel, with other works underway, along with her master’s thesis.
However, she still feels very much in the early stages of her career as a writer.
“Despite the success and excitement on the outside, I’m freaking out every day. I cry before every submission and think I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m always emailing my professors asking, ‘Can I take that back? I’m not ready.’
“I worked really hard, and I experienced a lot of failure before what everyone else sees as success. I spent a decade in my twenties failing at everything.”
“I love being able to tell people I’m not a special case. I just sat down and committed to the page.”
It’s real-life experience Mutonji believes serves as an asset when she enters an academic setting.
“My sense of relating to the students is very close,” she said. “They see me as someone who just graduated and in their age range who got published. I make them feel that tomorrow the same thing could happen for them.”
She added that type of exposure would have given her more confidence when she first started university.
“When I was an undergraduate, we would have visiting writers who were in their 40s and 50s come with this beautiful history of living a life as a writer. There was a sense of intimidation for me. It felt so unattainable to think it will take three decades to get to where they were.”
As much as Mutonji looks forward to being a relatable mentor, she views her role as writer-in-residence as a reciprocal exchange.
“When I get to sit down with a student, they make me feel less alone. It’s not just what I represent to them,” she said. “It’s what they represent to me. They are my direct peers and being able to work with them and mentor them, that’s a beautiful thing.”
Mutonji will be holding office hours on campus this fall on Tuesdays, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., beginning Sept.12. Office hours at the London Central Library, 251 Dundas St., will be on Tuesday afternoons, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Please email email@example.com to book an in-person meeting to discuss your creative projects.