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Writers' Trust finalist Tea Mutonji on the ugly side of 'pretty'

Tea Mutonji is photographed in Toronto, on Friday, October 25, 2019. The Toronto author's debut short story collection, "Shut Up You're Pretty," has been nominated for the Writers Trust fiction prize. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — Tea Mutonji was always labelled as some kind of “girl.”

She’s been “the new girl” who was born in Congo, “the poor girl” raised in the multicultural borough of Scarborough in east-end Toronto and “the black girl” in the mostly white suburb where she moved as a teenager.

One label the 25-year-old can’t seem to shake is that of “the pretty girl,” or rather, “the pretty black girl” — for women of colour, she notes, such supposed flattery tends to be racially qualified.

For Mutonji, “pretty” isn’t a compliment; it’s an offence to everything else a woman can be. She explores this ugly subtext in her debut short story collection, “Shut Up You’re Pretty,” one of five books in the running for the Writers’ Trust fiction prize next week.

“I feel that we’re actually going through this shift where women don’t want to be (seen) for their looks,” said Mutonji. “We’re demanding to be looked at first as who we are.”

The coming-of-age tale comprises 18 vignettes told from the perspective of Loli, a black girl growing up in Scarborough’s low-income neighbourhood of Galloway.

Early in life, Loli learns to be pliable to the desires of others, which can come at a profit and her personal expense.

After a beguiling best friend initiates her into flashing her breasts in exchange for cigarettes, Loli discovers that sex is one of the few assets she has to lift herself out of poverty.

She forms all-consuming relationships with men and women, but emotional and physical intimacy never seem to overlap. Instead, she’s cast in the roles of concubine, caretaker and body to have sex with. 

“Bad things happen to people who look like me,” Loli recalls one partner telling her.

As Mutonji sees it, this is what being “pretty” really means: reducing women to their physical appearance, then punishing them for it.

“We always want to kind of disappear ourselves,” Mutonji said. “I feel like that’s the intent … to denounce everything else you could possibly be and reduce you to this one reality.”

In high school, Mutonji became a model student in part to shed her image as “the ditzy girl.” But her academic accolades were either ignored by her peers, or if the teacher was black, dismissed as favouritism.

This impostor syndrome seems to have followed Mutonji to University of Toronto Scarborough. Even as she won plaudits for her poetry and personal essays, the media studies major planned to pursue law or politics after graduation.

“Writing was something I knew I was going to be doing, but not as a career,” she said. “It’s an impossible field. And there’s just such a lack of representation (and) diversity.”

That all changed when Mutonji’s literary “fairy godmother,” writer-musician Vivek Shraya, came into the picture.

In 2017, Shraya founded VS. Books to offer mentorship and publishing deals to young writers who are black, Indigenous or people of colour. When she put out an open call to find the imprint’s first author, Shraya said Mutonji’s stories stood out because she couldn’t predict what would happen next.

This element of surprise persisted throughout the editing process, she said. With each round of revisions, Mutonji turned in a new manuscript that barely resembled the last.

“She worked through the process of eliminating all the directions a story could take before settling on the one that made the most sense to her as a writer.”

Shortly before publication, Mutonji said she pulled several stories from the collection. She worried the book would be misread as autobiography, or worse, the story of all black women.

“There’s not many fiction books written from the perspective of a young black girl, and it felt very scary,” she said. “I didn’t want to be the voice that’s standing up for all voices.”

But her perspective shifted when women of colour flooded Mutonji’s social media channels with messages about what the stories meant to them, sharing their own.

Now, Mutonji said she approaches writing from an “activist lens,” claiming the responsibility that had previously terrified her.

“It’s my duty. There’s no other way for me to be an artist,” she said.

The Writers’ Trust of Canada will award the $50,000 fiction prize at a ceremony in Toronto on Tuesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2019.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press