Téa Mutonji: On Writing Non-Fiction and Belonging to a Community #GrowingRoom2020

Interview by 
Chelene Knight
Picture of Shut Up You're Pretty next to a black and white image of Tea Mutonji, with the author smiling and looking at the camera

To celebrate the upcoming Growing Room Festival 2020, we are chatting with a few festival authors to learn more about them and their work until March rolls around. Stay tuned for more conversations in this interview series. Kicking this series off is Chelene Knight's interview with Téa Mutonji!

Born in Congo, Téa Mutonji is a poet, author, and screenwriter. Her incredible book of short stories, Shut Up You’re Pretty is the first titled from Vivek Shraya’s imprint, VS. Books. It was shortlisted for the Roger’s Award in Fiction. Mutonji lives and writes in Toronto. Room editor, Chelene Knight speaks with Mutonji—Growing Room 2020 author and the commissioned author of the upcoming Room 43.1—about taking part in festivals, writing process, books, and everyday life.

This interview was conducted over email.


ROOM: The first thing I want to say is we are very excited to have you participate in Growing Room 2020. You’ve been touring for your book and I am sure you have a few festivals under your belt already. What are some of the things you look forward to when participating in festivals?

Téa Mutonji: I love what Room Magazine stands for. Unlike most of the festivals I’ve been too, Growing Room is attached to a journal—of which I’ve been reading religiously for a few years. I feel honoured to be included in the magazine as the commissioned writer for the “Hair” issue. But to also be present physically for the festival and occupy tangible space with womxn folks from all over Canada gets me even closer to who I want to be as an artist. I started writing to share (or to publish) because I saw the way my girlfriends loved my writing. Not because it was necessarily good, but because I was writing about things that people didn’t want to write about. These things were topical and related to their immediate lives. My primary goal as an artist has always been and will always be to tell stories for women and because of women. The Growing Room festival shares in that philosophy, and this is a hidden treasure I chose to share specifically with Room.


ROOM: In addition to being a Growing Room 2020 author, you are also the commissioned writer for our Hair-themed issue which launches at the festival this March, and we LOVE your essay. I want to ask about writing in multiple genres. How do you make the shift from writing fiction to creative non-fiction? For me, my collaborators shift, as does my mindset. Is this the same for you?

TM: My natural writing instinct is non-fiction and by default, poetry. I have to put a lot of thought and research into writing fiction. Making the shift for me is quite easy because of preparation. I’ve very rarely sat down to write, and had it come out naturally as a fiction piece. If I’m going to write fiction or even a script, I probably read extensively about the subject or the story I want to tell. Strangely enough, I feel a freedom with fiction writing that I haven’t felt with any other genre. I’m not afraid. I can push my own personal boundaries and it will be fine because it’s fiction. My mindset does shift. If I could place it by song genre, when I’m writing non-fiction, it’s like an acoustic guitar playing in the background. With fiction, it’s pop electric. With poetry, it’s somewhere between classic Motown and jazz.


ROOM: Tell us what it was like working with past Growing Room participant (and megastar) Vivek Shraya. How did it feel to be the very first to publish under Vivek’s new imprint, VS. Books?

TM: I think it helped that I knew Vivek for her activism more than I knew of her as a writer. So, I didn’t know how big she was! When I signed, I was like, “holy hell, what did I do.” In case it turned out that Vivek was like the Beyoncé of CanLit (and she is), I told myself not to over-google her until I knew for sure why she was emailing me for a meeting! I went for the meeting and walked out with a book deal. When I got home and googled her, I freaked out. But I still didn’t feel any pressure or anxiety about our relationship. Vivek has always been so down to earth and personable with me. There was never a power dynamic. I never got the sense that she was coming across as a big Canadian multidisciplinary artist (even though she is). If anything, she treated me like I was the big deal and she was the lucky one to get to work with me (?????). That was very special. Vivek noticed things about my writing that nobody else did. It's such a corny thing to say but the truth is: Vivek made me better. She could read between my poetic lines and got me to hone my voice. I had a lot of run-on sentences before Vivek came along and moved a comma here, or a period there.

The mentorship aspect of our relationship, where we got to talk about the industry, and about our own relationship with our work, was the most important to me. I guess that’s why she’s always felt like a friend or like someone I knew for a long time. I’ve gotten to a point in our working relationship where I no longer feel like this was a fluke. We were meant to work together exactly as we have been. I’ve never been met with so much patience and respect. This is what Vivek gave me each edit, and each turn: patience and respect. Now I expect it from everyone else.


ROOM: The motivation to continue with a project can be an uphill battle. In a recent interview in the Brampton Guardian, you said that there haven’t been many fiction books written from the perspective of a young black girl, that it felt very scary, and that you didn't want to be the voice that's standing up for all voices. You also mention that your perspective shifted when you started to receive messages from women of colour saying how much your stories meant to them. How does this affect the way you approach your writing now?

TM: Going back to that idea of how I’ve always written for women and because of women. Now to be frank: I write for women of colour, specifically. In many ways, I probably always have but didn’t want to admit it because I felt stressed to be inclusive. But hey, the world has gone along just fine not including women of colour, specifically black women. I can’t help but want to fill that void now, that gap. But I also think that I’m no longer writing for me either. I used to write for women, but also for myself which meant that there were stories and poems I wouldn’t tell because they belonged to me alone. But now I’m like: I exist because of you, and because of the women that came before me. I will tell stories accordingly. This year I learned that I belong to a community. And it’s this community that truly believes that I matter. And my heart is just different now because of it.


ROOM: Process is a thing. And I know it’s something that is super individual and personal. When you have an idea for a new project, how do you dive in? What does your approach look like?

TM: I read! And I interview people. I do research. I go out in the world and see if there’s a story like this already out. If yes, I ask myself: Do I have something more to offer to this story? If the answer is no, then I move on. If the answer is yes, then I try to get as close to this newness as I can. I process fiction and non-fiction differently. With non-fiction, it’s a game of elimination. I have an ongoing non-fiction manuscript that I started while in my undergrad, and I recently found myself pulling out stories—not because I didn’t want to tell them, but because it’s just not the time. I could look at my life and go “okay this chapter, this event, this moment, belongs in a different manuscript and I’m not at the right place in my personal or professional life to share it.” I think I process my work now like someone who wants a long-term career. I’m writing strategically now. With a plan. I’m writing with the determination that in five to ten years, I’ll still be writing, and some people might still be interested. And if they aren’t, who cares because I will.

When I was writing my first book I was like “I must put everything down in case this is the only chance I get.” I don’t have that fear anymore. That fear that this is it. I process with more pause and with less rushing. I’m waltzing into my next project like I have all my life to write. It’s pretty liberating.


ROOM: Do you have a book that you return to inspiration or comfort over and over? You know, that book that feels like family.

TM: Not so much in fiction, but in non-fiction, I love reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together In My Name, both by Maya Angelou. I love many books but those are the two that make me feel important, and that make my experiences and my love of life feel real each time. I was SHOCKED when I first read Maya. It wasn’t long ago (I was 19 or 20). It was my first time reading a novel by a black woman. I felt a little sad. Like it’s taken me so long to feel less alone in life. That’s the effect Maya had on me. I went and got STILL I RISE, tattooed on me like a true twenty-something would do. Lol.


ROOM: What does complete and utter self-care look like for you? If you could take a break from writing and work, what would you do? Walk us through a day of Téa care!

TM: I’ll be very honest and admit that I haven’t taken a break from work and writing—yet. I’m a workaholic. It’s very bad. You know, when you grow up poor, you get so afraid to end up that poor again so stuff like “taking time off” never crosses my mind. What usually happens is that I get burned out and end up getting sent home from my waitressing job and then I’m forced to have a “day off.” In which case I’m homesick, listening to an audiobook and . . . doing laundry. I also have a bad relationship with the this “self-care” idea because once I saw an ad that said “turned your self-care into a career,” and that made me so angry that now I’m like: I don’t want self-care, I don’t want another career, I just want one minute to breathe. When I get the chance to rest (this is soon because I’m officially taken a few months off of work and I have no upcoming events/deadlines), I think a perfect day would start at my best friend’s house. I would probably sleep there the night before so I can wake up with her and the baby and we’d get breakfast like we used to when Blake was a newborn and Ashley was on maternity leave. Most of the day would be spent lounging and watching a movie with the baby. At some point I’d probably want to get a workout in (usually boxing or pole dancing or yoga). And I’d end the day reading a book or taking a walk. I haven’t had a day like that since her baby was born three years ago. My goal for 2020 above all is to rest so that next time I'm asked this question, I have a real answer, and not a scramble of half-good days.


ROOM: Is there anything you want to share about what you have in store for us next?

TM: When I began working on my novel, I asked myself: What do I need the most from the world right now? I came up with one answer: I need permission to heal. My next project deals with a lot of that. Not so much healing, but more, asking yourself what do you want from the world.


You can join Téa Mutonji at the following Growing Room Literary & Arts Festival 2020 events from March 12 to 15:

Genre Blending: Writing in Multiple Genres with Téa Mutonji (Workshop)

Launch of the “Hair” Room Issue 43.1 (Reading)

Black Magic Women: BIPOC Encounters with The Fantastic (Panel)

Cut to the Feeling 2: Musings on Sex & Romance (Panel)

Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award, and long-listed for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail, the Walrus, and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making Room, Love Me True, Sustenance, The Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter. The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” Knight was the previous managing editor at Room (2016- June 2019), and programming director for the Growing Room Festival (2018, 2019), and now CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials and Breathing Space Creative. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling. Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020. She was selected as a 2019 Writers’ Trust Rising Star by David Chariandy. @LWEstudio

You can also find Chelene at the “On Money and Writing: An Intersectional Conversation About Creative Survival” panel and the launch of the “Hair” Room Issue 43.1 at Growing Room Festival this year.

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