Téa Mutonji, refuse labels

Téa Mutonji was in her early twenties when a friend asked her if she had always been pretty. “Yes,” she replied, most naturally. “Was it difficult? »Retorted his girlfriend.

“I had never thought of that,” says the Canadian author, joined in New York where she is undertaking a master’s degree in literature. I understood that all my life people dictated to me what I should be. I was a black, immigrant, beautiful woman, and all of these factors created expectations and limited my possibilities and my own desires. Like many women, I was reduced to my appearance, quite simply. “

Identity – imposed and modeled – is at the heart of Téa Mutonji’s first work of fiction, Shut up, you’re beautiful. Loli, the protagonist, is like the writer originally from Congo, and grew up in Scarborough, a multicultural neighborhood in Toronto often touted as a landmark for criminals, drug dealers and gangsters.

This environment is added to the stereotypes that Loli must fight to assert herself and find her place in the world. “In high school, a girl asked me if I went to street gangs because I was from Scarborough,” says the novelist. I became obsessed with my physical appearance. I wanted to blend in. “

The prejudices conveyed about her neighborhood followed her into university classes. “However, everything I heard really did not match my experience. Through all these negative anecdotes, we do not see children running behind a ball or tripping over a rock. Yet the inhabitants have real lives, real desires. It was important for me to remain authentic, and to recreate the feelings of community and caring that animate the Scarborough that I know. “

Down with the labels

Composed in the form of 18 micro news, Shut up, you’re beautiful is articulated in a surprising romantic form, and has fun exploiting stereotypes to better thwart them. Here, a teenage girl seeks happiness in a pack of cigarettes. There, a young girl discovers that her body opens the way for her to the boys’ wallet. Later, a young woman decides to shave her head in an abortion clinic. Then, an adult reconnects with her mother and, by the same token, with her origins.

Although this first novel is a snub to labels and received ideas, Téa Mutonji continues to have to work around them on a daily basis. As a diversity writer, being a smash hit comes with its set of expectations.

“Being black and an immigrant is not something that we contemplate every morning and that determines the course of our day. I often have the impression that people only remember that from the book, although I do not refer to it very much. Loli, like me at the time, is too young to understand the weight of her origins. I created a heroine who looked like me, because that’s what I know and I don’t see much. But this story is just one of many, and does not represent what all refugees or all women of color go through. “

The intensity of friendship

Beyond exile and difference, Shut up, you’re beautiful is above all a universal story: that of a young girl who takes the road to adulthood, and who meets femininity and its many involuntary dimensions.

It is also friendship, in its magnitude as in its monstrosity, which forms the backbone of the novel. While the literature often offers us portraits of women defined by the men around them, Téa Mutonji writes on the influence, intensity and toxicity of female relationships. From the first pages of the book, Loli forms friendships with Jolie, a beautiful blonde and popular girl, who will lead her down the tortuous paths of addiction and prostitution.

“I wanted to write a book in which women determine the adult you become. When we are young, our relationships with our friends are almost fused. We try, in a way, to merge into each other. It’s almost like a love story. Jolie will leave a lasting impression on Loli, which will influence the dynamics of all of her other friendships. She will have to learn to forgive and to see how these experiences have allowed her to build her identity. “

With this first novel, Téa Mutonji has become an activist in spite of herself. However, she will not let herself be defined by this image. Her next novel, if she has the chance to be published again, she said humbly, will be a million miles from that first attempt. “It will be light, fun and very funny. Here is one that has not finished surprising us.

Shut up, you’re beautiful

Téa Mutonji, translated from English by Mélissa Verreault, Tête première, Montréal, 2021, 208 pages

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