Given the title, you’d expect that Téa Mutonji’s short story collection Shut Up You’re Pretty (paperback) would be inspired by what’s being going on with women lately. But in the following email interview, Mutonji explains that wasn’t the point of these connected short stories…until it was.
Photo Credit: Sandro Pehar
First off, thank you for thinking I’m pretty.
I think you’re more than just pretty Paul!
Squee! Second, is there a framing device in Shut Up You’re Pretty?
Shut Up You’re Pretty definitely has an intended framing device. It’s perhaps a little bit ambiguous, but it centers around Loli and her relationship with her mother. In the first story “Tits For Cigs,” Mother has lost all of her best qualities, the immigration and settling in Canada appears to have silenced her in some ways. And in the final story, “Tilapia Fish,” Loli narrates a Mother character who is doing all the things she used to do, from cooking to singing to being. Both Loli and her mother have had throughout the stories, arc narratives of having “lost” themselves. I love how words, identities, and slurs have for long been caging for Loli. But in that final story, she watches her mother and instead says: “Words that meant: immigrant, mother, fighter.”
Do the stories in Shut Up You’re Pretty also have a running theme?
The title Shut Up You’re Pretty has this condescending tone to it, of reducing someone to being nothing more than, “pretty” in some stories, it’s not about being pretty but it’s about being black, or a waitress, or a sex worker, or a girl in trouble, a domestic partner, a friend. It’s the ways in which identity can sometimes feel imposed rather than celebrated.
The stories that didn’t make the cut are pretty much the ones that couldn’t compliment the linear structure of Loli’s life. I wanted the stories to jump from one scene to another without too much unpacking or history needed to fill in the blanks. The stories that took us away from the intended narratives are the ones that were filed deeply in a drawer with no keys to it.
What genre or genres or combination of genres do these stories fall into?
These stories are fiction. I sometimes see it as hyper-real, but alternatively, perhaps just realism as a narrative lens. It’s sometimes anticlimactic but it’s sometimes dramatic. There’s quite a few conflicting mood, settings, and genres going on throughout this collection, and it is entirely deliberate. To me, life’s just as messy and unlinear, even if it’s following a clear timeline. I just wanted to write stories that felt as close as memory as possible. As close as the real thing. Sometimes I think I did just that. Other times I think I exaggerated it too much. But I love how I get a different or new sense each time I come back to the book. What’s true is that the place and the people are so recognizable, at least to me, and every time I go back to it, I learn something new.
Shut Up You’re Pretty has eighteen stories in it, but is only 138 pages long. What is it about short short stories that you like so much? Or is it more that you just write and they happen to come out short?
I purposely went for extra short stories. It was part of the framing. I wanted to focus on small moments, scenes, episodes of one person’s life. And I also liked how with extra short stories, the reader has to be dedicated to reading in-between the lines to follow along. They have to agree to be present in the story to fill in the places that are left blank.
Are there any writers or specific stories that had a particularly big influence on any of the stories in Shut Up You’re Pretty?
Perhaps, Maya Angelou’s memoir Gather Together In My Name, might have had a day in the decision in sharing these specific stories. I always worry about playing with stereotypical characters. Like a black girl growing up in poverty isn’t necessarily my personal story, but it’s the common narrative we read in literature. I was nervous about writing this idea and adding on to this trope like character traits. But then I remembered how in Maya’s memoir, she’s not a character, she’s a person. And her experiences are real and valid and despite having dealt with some, perhaps, stereotypical titles in her self — sex worker what what what — there’s so much more to Angelou than just that. I was like “true,” this character doesn’t have to be a repetition to who we understand as “the standard black female character.” The trick was figuring out how to do that. So I made her the girl next door. I made her a white passing. I don’t know. I kind of went crazy with who I wanted her to be. I wanted her to be everything and everyone. It was hard to put the pen down for sure.
What about non-literary influences, such as movies or TV shows; did any of them have a big impact on either what you wrote in any of these stories or how you wrote them?
I didn’t have much or any really film or television inspiration while writing this. But immediately after it was done my mind nearly exploded. I finished it and knew immediately that I wrote it with the intention of exploring visual story telling, too (photography or film). I was thinking at first as a collection of short films. But then I researched Moonlight with my sisters and I was like: holy fuck. I started to consider how this would look like as Boyhood, too. I got so obsessed with this idea that I’ve actually been writing it into a script already. I knew I wanted to do this but I didn’t realize it’d get around to it so soon. I didn’t realize it’d want the feature and not the series. I’m a tiny dreamer. I only go for attainable goals. But then these little stories were made and now they exist and everything suddenly feels attainable. Go big or don’t go at all — not even home!
The title, Shut Up You’re Pretty, makes me think some of these stories may have been inspired or influenced by what’s going on in the world with women and women’s issues. Is that the case?
The stories definitely didn’t intentionally mean to be influenced by the social and political climate of 2018. I wrote the manuscript in 2017, so the themes were already set in place. When the Me Too movement started, I felt this pressure to get away from writing about trauma — and specifically sexual trauma — because it was everywhere and overwhelming me. The public discourse of Me Too, while necessary and important, was kind of triggering for me, so I had to pull away from all of that and really consider if I wanted to be part of the conversation. I decided that I didn’t. And yet, when I went back to writing, the stories still ended up being exactly that. Is it a cautionary tale? Is it just a glimpse of a very real reality? I think it tip toes on many fine lines. My intentions in writing these stories weren’t to be political. I just wanted to write about this fascinating reality and if it happens to be a mirage of the world in which we live in then I feel I’ve done my job to the best of my personal standard.
So what then do you think someone like me — a cisgender straight white male — will get out of these stories? Or, more importantly, what do you hope I get out of them?
It’d be nice for people — men, LOL, sorry — to kind of come out and acknowledge that women go through some tough shit. And it starts as early as childbirth. And a lot of it really does come from living in a misogynistic society. And we women have for years attempted to dismantle the system and it seems like we’re going backwards. I mean, women in certain places are losing the right to their uterus. It’s really fucked up. I hate to be that person that says, “you did this, it’s your fault,” but I also feel like it might be appropriate to say, “we need more men to join us in conversation because history has shown us that only men can shape the world in which we live in. We need you.” I think that’s what I hope men, all men, regardless of race, get from my book.
I read some Goodreads review and this man said, “the book left me really depressed and it was difficult for me to read.” And I was like, “fuck, great, that’s exactly how I dreamt you’d feel. Now go out and do something about it.” One of the fears I had was that black women would read my book and go: “I’m so tired of reading about the black body as a product of trauma,” and I definitely tried to fight against that, but I don’t suppose black women were my only intended audience. A lot of my stories are for the non-black people I grew up with, too. I wanted to teach them, in some ways. I wanted to make them less ignorant. I wanted to help them have access to these realities. And I feel the same way about men too. Whenever a black woman tells me they’re about to read my book or that they have, my first feeling is to tell them I’m sorry for having had written yet another character who has experienced so much pain. And then I want to tell them, “that’s not all I wrote, and that’s not all I’m going to write, my work here isn’t done.” But each time, I find that I don’t need to do that. I don’t need to apologize to black women. They know. And they are in support and in conversation with me.
You know, I just binged watched season two of She’s Gotta Have It on Netflix. In it, Nola Darling, an artist, starts to call herself a political artist. She says she didn’t even mean to be: “I’m just living my truth.” It made me realize: being black, being an artist, and being women is a political, no matter what.
Given the length and the framing device, do you think people should read Shut Up You’re Pretty in one sitting, like a novella, or should they spread it out over a couple days?
I think that the only thing that should be absorbed at once, and in one sitting, is a movie. And more than that, I think a really great movie should be watched multiple times. I feel just the same about my collection. I think it’s important to allow ourselves the space to digest. Even after reading a two line poem. I’d rather you take five minute breaks or two days or two months. So much of reading is engaging. I think I always imagined people reading a story a night. Maybe two stories per night. Rather than consume something in one sitting, spacing yourself from the work is always my suggestive way of reading.
[Though] the decision ultimately —at least to me — seems like a personal choice. Given the shortness and directness of this collection, it is possible to read it in one sitting and have the same effect as reading it in separate burst. [But] I would hope people pick according to their own relationship with the text.
Shut Up You’re Pretty is the first book in Vivek Shraya’s new VS. Books imprint. What influence, if any, did Vivek have on these stories, or was she hands off save for choosing you to be the imprint’s first release?
Vivek taught me how not to be afraid. She saw value in me and my work and my thoughts and my ideas, and allowed me the space to explore them. Vivek really trusted me. And I haven’t had many relationships that involved trust. So, it really changed my life in some ways. My favorite part of working with Vivek was watching her execute her art. I’m kind of like a child in this regard. I’m always like, “wow, look at what my mentor is doing, I can do anything in the world!”
Finally, if someone enjoys Shut Up You’re Pretty, what collection of someone else’s short short stories would you suggest they read next and why that?
If specifically, you liked Shut Up You’re Pretty then you should definitely read 13 Ways Of Looking At A Fat Girl by Mona Awad. Both our books seem to be in conversation with each other.
I’ve also just started reading Immigrant City by David Bezmozgis and I’m loving it so much.