At the start of 2017, sixth-year U of T Scarborough student Téa Mutonji wasn’t sure what life would be like after graduation, but a new publishing contract is sharpening her 2018 focus.
After a national search, Mutonji is the first author to receive a book deal with VS. Books, which is run by Vancouver publishing house Arsenal Pulp Press.
“It was really exciting and surreal to receive the news,” says Mutonji, a sixth-year Media Studies student with a minor in English Literature and currently completing a minor in Creative Writing. “I’ve been writing for a very long time, but I’ve only just started to really put my work out there.”
“It was really exciting and surreal to receive the news,” says Mutonji. “I’ve been writing for a very long time, but I’ve only just started to really put my work out there.”
In the spring of 2017, Arsenal Pulp Press and Toronto-based artist Vivek Shraya teamed up to create VS. Books, a literary imprint focused on publishing and supporting writers of colour between the ages of 18 and 24.
“One of the things that’s hopefully unique about the imprint is that it’s also a mentorship,” says Shraya. “I let the writers know that I will be there to support, mentor and provide them with any resources and supports around their career.”
Those supports include mentorship on topics such as grant writing, planning book tours and using social media as an author.
Mutonji first heard of the mentorship program from Daniel Tysdal, an associate English professor, Teaching Stream, who learned of the program on social media. Tysdal is excited about Mutonji’s introduction to a larger audience.
“Téa is a gifted storyteller, her characters are authentic, complex, and fully realized, and her stories are filled with great detail and insights,” he says. “There is something very real and vital and dynamic about her work.”
“Téa is a gifted storyteller, her characters are authentic, complex, and fully realized, and her stories are filled with great detail and insights,”says Tysdal. “There is something very real and vital and dynamic about her work.”
Mutonji, who has been recognized as an Emerging Author in the Ontario Book Publishers Organization’s and Scarborough Arts’ 2017 What’s Your Story? writing contest, and at the U of T’s 2017 English Undergraduate Conference her poem “Après Viol” won excellence in poetry, seriously began to consider the mentorship opportunity during her 2017 summer trip in London, England.
“I pretty much had nothing to do, so I told myself just to write and do this,” says Mutonji.
Instead of submitting a completed class manuscript, she decided to write a whole new work for the September 2017 deadline. Four months later, she produced a collection of short stories – stories inspired by Pretty Woman, a long-form poem she wrote in early 2017.
“I wanted to decompose this poem that had a lot of ideas colliding together into every single stanza,” she says of the collection that touches on womanhood, race, romance and childhood. “Every short story is a moment of that poem that became its own identity.”
It was through poetry that Mutonji first became familiar with Shraya, having read her work online and seen her perform onstage. A friend also suggested she read Shraya’s even this page is white, a collection of poetry and Shraya’s interrogation of skin – its origins, functions and limitations. “I read it and loved it,” says Mutonji.
What stands out and excites Mutonji about working with Shraya is how activism and topics of race and gender are interwoven into her creations. Mutonji has long looked for a mentor that can honestly relate to the themes she incorporates into her work.
“I have so much respect for Vivek as an artist,” she says. “We experience similar struggles in terms of identity and artistry, and I love that I get to work with someone that I can completely relate to.”
Shraya says there’s something “serendipitous” about the first book for VS. Books being a collection of short stories – God Loves Hair, her first published work with Arsenal Pulp Fiction, was also a collection of stories – and she’s excited about working with Mutonji.
“Téa is someone who understands the craft of writing and is just going to get better and better as a writer,” says Shraya. “It is a big endeavour to launch an imprint, but I feel excited and really thrilled about working with her."
“Téa is someone who understands the craft of writing and is just going to get better and better as a writer,” says Shraya. “It is a big endeavour to launch an imprint, but I feel excited and really thrilled about working with her.
Along with the excitement of a publishing contract, Mutonji is amazed at how quickly things have come together in her life. Even joining the Creative Writing Program, where she would learn of the mentorship opportunity, was a last-minute decision.
“I was trying to figure out what to do with my Media Studies degree after graduation and I wasn’t doing so well with my last few essays,” she says, adding she was told her essay-writing was a bit too creative.
She joined the creative writing program after a professor suggested she consider it for an additional minor program. “I enrolled, submitted some poems, and now, here we are,” she says.
VS. Books will publish Mutonji’s collection of short stories in spring 2019.