November 15, 2020: “Shut Up You’re Pretty” by Téa Mutonji

Sunday’s here, Story366!

Today I continued on with an all-Scouting weekend. Yesterday, I noted that we set up our troop’s Christmas tree lot—the main fundraiser—and that my life will be overtaken by that venture soon enough. This morning, we helped another Scout with his Eagle project—an ambitious-type community service project—digging holes, pouring concrete and cutting wood for a pergola for a local community garden. Then I zipped home and picked up the younger boy for his Cub Scout rocket derby, which was a lot of fun. If you haven’t been to a rocket derby, we make this little rockets out of cardboard tubes and plastic cones and fins. We then fill them with little engines and fuses and jolt them with an electric charge, firing them up into the air, fifty to a hundred feet. The little Scouts love it, it’s pretty easy and cheap, and makes for great memories. So, a nice weekend, but one that revolved around my kids and their Scouting activities. Am I still horribly behind on grading and all my other work? Sure. But having these events forced me out of the house and my attention on the boys. In that way, I’m grateful we had these scheduled events, as otherwise, I’m not sure we would have done anything.

Today I read from Congolese-Canadian writer Téa Mutonji‘s 2019 collection, Shut Up You’re Pretty, out from VS. Books. This is my first exposure to Mutonji’s work, which I always appreciate.

Shut Up You’re Pretty is a collection of linked stories, by the way, focusing on Loli, a Congolese refugee finding a home in Toronto (though we don’t get her name right away, not in the first three stories). The first story, “Tits for Cigs,” is set when Loli has just moved to Canada and is befriended by Jolie in her poor, refugee-laden neighborhood. She is so glad to have a friend, especially the beautiful and confident Jolie. Sadly, though, Jolie, whose mom is a drug-addicted prostitute, is also prone to using her body to get what she wants; in this story, it’s mainly cigarettes. Before long, the girls are standing outside a bodega, soliciting smokes in exchange for flashes and feels of their privates in an alley. If a first story in a collection can set a tone, this one does that, establishing a sad desperation that haunts all of Mutonji’s women.

“Parchment Paper” has Loli influenced by her cousin Theresa this time, a well-to-do cousin who comes to live with her for a summer when her parents divorce. Theresa is a bit older than our narrator, more experienced, too, and talks as if she’s even older than that. This comes to that, and after the girls take a bath together to cool down, Theresa convinces Loli she has to have her nether regions waxed of all body hair. This leads to disastrous results—the wax is a home brew found on the Internet that includes Elmer’s Glue—and would be completely funny if it wasn’t, yet again, so tragic.

“The Event” takes us back to the adventures of Loli and Jolie. This story takes the pair to another level of desperation, to what begins as Jolie wanting money to pay for rent, her mother—who’s dating her abusive boyfriend, Steve, again—not making ends meet. The “event” they have planned is to go to a park every night and make out, charging each guy who watches a few bucks. As more boys show up and insist on a more explicit show—with the money to pay for it—the girls degrade themselves to new levels.

The title story, “Shut Up You’re Pretty,” is later in the book and picks up with Loli as a college student. She has just moved in with Patty, an Ethiopian ex-pat who has it together a bit more than Loli does in most every way. Patty has a TA named Jonah, a PhD student in philosophy, and Loli has major crush on Jonah, despite the fact he has a terrible reputation, including an awful incident that forced a young undergrad to drop out.

Loli is undeterred, though, and takes a shift at the restaurant where she and Patty work just to run into Jonah, who will be there for a department party. She openly flirts with him, and later that night, the two meet up, begin what will grow into a long and complex relationship.

The beginning of this relationship seems normal, and dare I say, fulfilling for Loli. Jonah is warm and attentive, the two engaging in both passionate and non-passionate activities. Jonah’s cool, commanding exterior is softened. However, that change is short-lived, especially when Loli wants to know what their relationship status is, pressing him for an answer, toward something more exclusive and even permanent.

This leads to Jonah not answering his phone or returning Loli’s calls. She is in the dumps for a while, rescued by Patty, but not for long. Soon Loli is camped out on Jonah’s front stoop, unwilling to leave until he comes out. This actually works, reigniting their relationship for a while, but only for a limited time. Jonah grows distant again, and this time, will not cave to any of Loli’s pleas or tactics.

From there, Loli sinks deep into a rut, soothed somewhat by Patty, but for the most part, falls into complete disarray. She stops going to her classes, failing all of them. She puts on weight. She begins to take anti-depressants. I don’t want to reveal any more about the story, though—and there is certainly more—but will say that Mutonji keeps her streak alive, finding the worst-possible outcome for Loli (short of death, anyway) and beelines straight for it.

Téa Mutonji presents a collection of powerful, ultra-real stories in Shut Up You’re Pretty, her debut. These stories—at least the ones I read—aren’t all that uplifting, nor do they shine even a single ray of hope. Not all stories have to, though, and Mutonji depicts the existence of her refugee protagonist, the lengths to which she goes to not only survive, but to feel wanted, to fit in. I like this book, even though I ache for its character, experiencing a beautiful rendition of a life without much beauty.