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Outdoor close up of Téa Mutonji, wearing a brown tweed coat and red and silver hooped earrings, smiling at the camera on a sunny day
Téa Mutonji. Photo by Brent Gooden.

Writing in a Tumultuous Time

Téa Mutonji finds creative possibility in the freedom of her youth

Born in Congo-Kinshasa, Téa Mutonji (BA 2020 UTSC) immigrated with her family to Canada when she was nine, eventually settling in Scarborough’s Kingston-Galloway neighbourhood. She began writing poetry, plays and stories as a teenager. In 2019, she released her debut book of short stories, Shut Up You’re Pretty, which was shortlisted for the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Here, she talks about her new novel set in Oshawa, Ontario, and the peril of early success.

Why did you choose Scarborough as the setting for your first book?
I’m sort of obsessed with childhood. It was the time in my life that I felt the freest. Whenever I think of my childhood in Scarborough, I think of running around open fields, clothes hanging on a line and a bunch of kids making up games in the middle of the street.

The idea of feeling “free” has been a hot topic lately. What effect has the pandemic had on you? 
For several months, I couldn’t write. The news was too much for me. People have become so divided by their political views. I haven’t lost friends, but I’ve had a lot of uncomfortable conversations about politics, personal preferences and boundaries that were all a reaction to something we were witnessing in the news. I’ve had friends who have lost friends because of standing on opposite sides of the discussion on Black Lives Matter. 

Has your writing changed since the publication of your first book?
I care about public perception now, and I didn’t before. That freaks me out and makes me angry – that I might not be as bold or honest with my work as I was before. 

What are you working on now? 
I’m writing a novel that’s set in Oshawa, Durham Region and the Toronto area. I love the idea of small towns and the closeness and intimacy that comes with that. As a teenager in Durham in the early 2000s, I literally had nothing to do. So that meant a lot of house parties, a lot of sitting in peoples’ driveways. My book deals with codependency and intense friendships. There’s this secretness to living there that I was attracted to. But Durham is a very simple place. When you leave, the possibilities suddenly become endless.

Book recommendation?
I’m currently reading Bad Cree by Jessica Johns

An author you admire?
Tia Williams

Favourite spot at UTSC? 
I wrote Shut Up You’re Pretty in the Bladen Wing. It’s a special place for me

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