Manically nostalgic women snorting crushed cubes of sugar at a party for sober celebrants. A young waitress recalls clients from her time as a prostitute and feels wonder at a colleague’s unflagging talent for smiles. A university student’s naked interview at a “spa” results in feeling “both weakened and empowered” at her nominal power over male flesh; during slow times in the staff area, she says, “we heard about assault so often it became as common as good morning.” A young woman coming down from a weeklong binge (“I could never be satisfied with just one line,” she confides) navigates the aftermath of her father’s suicide. For the cash, two 13-year old girls envision themselves as “real stars” when they perform sexually for growing crowds of school boys; “for the thrill,” they later shoplift from every store in a local mall.
Though Téa Mutonji’s debut stories are often bite-sized (18 of them in 133 pages), they’re never slight. Even in a case like “Tilapia Fish,” a family reunion vignette that doesn’t quite run 2 pages, there’s an implied substance that stretches deep into the characters’ pasts and evokes probable future trajectories.
The stories are absorbing for their matter-of-fact bluntness, where sex work, addiction, and bartering of assorted kinds are all part of getting by. And they’re remarkable as well for searing portraits, where loss and failure jostle with resilience and moving on.
Mutonji builds a coming-of-age arc around Loli, who in the opening story “Tits for Cigs” recalls her early days in the Congo and her present at a low-income housing neighbourhood in Scarborough. There, exposure to the outside world quickly teaches her about the doubtful power an adolescent female body possesses to attain consumer goods. Loli’s teenaged highs and lows, which are narrated in a disaffected voice that recalls the suburban Mississauga of Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, gradually mature into an adulthood that’s marked by excesses, further losses, and no emerging sense of direction or purpose.
Shut Up You’re Pretty is the first book in Vivek Shraya’s VS Books imprint, which will feature emerging work by “young writers who are Indigenous, Black, or a person of colour.”
Mutonji’s collection reflects a yearlong mentoring process. Mutonji, a talented mentee who turns 24 this year, doesn’t offer a particularly hopeful view of women’s options. Her characters are vital, though, and their fights and flights stun like punches.
Brett Josef Grubisic’s latest novel is Oldness; Or, the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O.