Western’s writer-in-residence Téa Mutonji is a finalist in a national book competition, with her debut short story collection, Shut Up You’re Pretty, chosen for the Canada Reads 2024 shortlist.
The final stage of the contest, hosted by CBC, features five celebrities each championing a specific book. Kudakwashe Rutendo, an actor, will be advocating for Mutonji’s book in what the broadcaster describes as the “great Canadian book debate.”
“We are so thrilled to hear the news that Téa’s book has been shortlisted for Canada Reads! Téa has been bringing tremendous creative energy to her role as writer-in-residence at Western this year and we look forward to watching Canada Reads unfold,” said Pauline Wakeham, professor and vice-chair of the English and writing studies department at Western.
A campus viewing party is planned for March 4 so students, staff and faculty can watch the first Canada Reads debate together and celebrate Mutonji.
“Her love for reading and writing is infectious and we look forward to teaching her book in many of our classes this semester,” Wakeham said.
Shut Up You’re Pretty is a collection of short stories following Loli, a young Congolese woman, as she grows up in Scarborough, Ont. It won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and the Trillium Book Award in 2020.
Western News connected with Mutonji to talk about her book’s latest success and the journey to get there.
Western News: How do you feel making the Canada Reads longlist and shortlist?
Téa Mutonji: It’s wild. I couldn’t have dreamt this up. I don’t think this big. I’m pretty small. I was happy just to get to write every day. Now it’s just like wow, this means something. What a beautiful thing to get to celebrate. Not so much me and my writing but the chance to be in this space with people who love writing, books, arts, film, you name it, just as much as I do. Like, “Mom, is this the big league? Someone hold my hand!”
WN: What does it mean to have Shut Up You’re Pretty on the longlist and now the shortlist, in such a national spotlight? Have you noticed a change?
Mutonji: The first thought that came to mind when I heard the news was the current political climate in my home country, in Congo, and I wondered right away if there would be an opportunity to highlight that while doing press for the book. I’m subtle in this delivery. Kinshasa (the capital city) is only mentioned every so often in the collection. But it’s my world and it’s a world for my characters. Being longlisted and then shortlisted reminded me of the immense privilege it is to sometimes get to share your work, your passions, your truths on a national scale. The main thing that’s changed for me – or, at least, the main thing that’s been restored for me – is my belief that it’s more than just art. It’s more than just storytelling. And getting recognized for it, celebrated for it, is a gift I do not accept lightly. That in itself is life-changing. I am overwhelmed with gratitude to be here.
WN: What has this journey been like for you, rocketing to published author and quickly to award-winning author?
Mutonji: Neither of those things feel very obvious for me. Daily, I’m just a girl with two cats writing dramatic stories on my iPhone. That is my reality. It is only when I check my email that I’ll maybe consider the fact that I’m published, that I’ve won awards. And when I do it’s really like a nice surprise. It’s really like seeing snow for the first time again and again. This journey has demanded a lot of emotional growth from me. A lot of discipline and sacrifice that I’m not sure I would have made if I was living another life. Though my experience has mostly been excellent, and extremely positive, there (are also) social, political, and capitalistic truths. In the sense that I work more jobs today than ever before and I do it for the writing. Every day I’m learning more about myself and more about literature and I feel lucky to get to do that.
“I’m just really grateful. Even my very bad days feel like good days. I get to do something I love as often as I want to do it and some people care about the result. It’s so cool.” – Téa Mutonji, author and Western writer-in-residence
WN: What do you hear from readers of Shut Up You’re Pretty? What kind feedback is most meaningful for you?
Mutonji: I love it when people tell me this book is wild because I’m like, “Honestly, true.” People enjoy it. People tell me they gasp at it, they laugh with it, and they cry because of it. I was just writing because I like it, but hearing all of this, I might never stop writing now. When people of colour, when Black women, talk about the importance of representation, of being seen and feeling felt and how my book has given this to them, I still get pretty emotional over that. Just a minute ago, a friend sent me a DM (direct message on social media) saying that she loved my book, but the life she’s seeing me live since my book brings her joy. That’s a beautiful sentiment. I am maybe in a state of perpetual shock. A part of me can’t believe any of this is happening and that it just keeps happening. I don’t think people know how much hearing from them means to me. It is the absolute best part of this.
WN: Has your approach changed at all through your MFA studies or work as Western’s writer-in-residence?
Mutonji: I read a lot more than I write because of my MFA which isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s forcing me to consider literature outside of my head. So that when I do return to the page, it’s with a bit more calmness. A bit more authority. Like: I’ve seen this done so I think I know how to get around. Similarly, being at Western has done something wicked for my perception of self. People come to my office because they trust that I have something to say and they’re excited to hear it. When I sit down to write, I have to believe that’s true, I have to be just as excited about my potential. In both environments, I’m reminded that I’ve done this once and historically speaking, I can mostly likely do it again and that makes writing feel less daunting. I approach the page with a lot more tranquility than ever before.
WN: What are you working on now?
Mutonji: I’ve just finished my novel. Simply put, it’s about a friendship breakup. There’s so much in there, I love it so much.
MEET WITH MUTONJI
Mutonji’s office hours for the winter term are Mondays from 12 to 5 p.m., beginning Jan. 22. To receive her advice on poetry or prose, book a time to meet with the writer-in-residence and submit your work in advance.