Shazia Hafiz Ramji Reviews Téa Mutonji’s Shut Up You’re Pretty
In the eponymous title story of Téa Mutonji’s debut collection of short fiction, Shut Up You’re Pretty, the narrator, Loli, an undergrad, falls for a teaching assistant, Jonas, a PhD student in psychology and a compulsive flirt, who many women find attractive, including Patty, Loli’s roommate.
The story begins with Patty telling Loli about a girl who dated Jonas. “He told her that he loved her, and that she should model,” says Patty, to which Loli replies, “And she believed him?” Although young, Black Loli is not naïve; she still falls for Jonas and asks him out at the pub during his department party. When Jonas and Loli begin dating, he dubs her “Operation Deflower” and warns her against being funny as a woman. Later, after their relationship develops, he leaves and she goes to visit: “I stayed with Jonas every day for a week. I missed a midterm, and then I missed a few lectures.” Eventually, Loli becomes the girl who dated Jonas, the one that she and Patty talked about in the story’s opening.
“Shut Up You’re Pretty” sketches the memorable journey of Loli’s transformation from someone who doesn’t understand how a woman’s body and life could be thoroughly altered by an entitled, privileged man, to a woman who comes to the realization that her self-loathing is likely the reason she is drawn to Jonas, who is abusive.
Mutonji writes with a generosity that guides the reader through the lucid world of Loli’s coming of age in Scarborough. In these linked stories, we grow with Loli from the ages of six to 26. In the opening story, “Tits for Cigs,” the first-person narration is intimate in its telling of her first female friendship with Jolie, a popular white girl. Together, they learn about their sexuality; a teenage Loli lets a stranger feel her breasts in exchange for his purchase of cigarettes for her and Jolie. At the end of the story, Jolie triumphantly proclaims, “We are women!” She takes her shirt off and runs around the field behind their housing complex.
In the subsequent story, “Parchment Paper,” Loli’s ethereal and enigmatic cousin, Theresa, visits them in the suburb of Galloway. When Theresa tries giving Loli a bikini wax, she penetrates her with the wax knife. Later, Loli tries to recreate the pleasure she felt and begins to masturbate.
Shut Up You’re Pretty traces its arc with journeys of female sexual awakening, which are both empowering and terrifying. The voices of the women in these stories are refreshing for their nuance and candour, which capture the deviant curiosity of adolescence and the irreverence of teenage years.
Mutonji’s debut signals the arrival of a unique, feminist voice in Canadian fiction, one that is capable of turning expectations to much delight and surprise. Shut Up You’re Pretty is a must-read for all women, but will be especially loved by those who are street-smart and racialized. However, the specificity of experiences throughout this collection will resonate far and wide in the way that the particular can become universal, while still retaining its integrity.
Shazia Hafiz is the author of Port of Being (Invisible Publishing), a finalist for the 2019 BC Book Prizes (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize) and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. It was named by CBC as a best Canadian poetry book of 2018 and received the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Shazia's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Best Canadian Poetry 2019, and Quill & Quire. She is at work on a novel.