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Book Reviews

Shut Up You’re Pretty

by Téa Mutonji

Coconut Dreams

by Derek Mascarenhas

Shut Up You’re Pretty
the debut collection of linked short stories by Toronto writer Téa Mutonji, is the inaugural book in Vivek Shraya’s VS. Books imprint at Arsenal Pulp Press. Told from the perspective of Loli, a young Black woman who grows up in the Galloway neighbourhood of the Toronto suburb Scarborough, these narratives move from adolescence to young adulthood.

The stories are vivid and unsettling in their detail. From the curiosity inherent in discovering one’s sexuality to the ways in which that sexuality is exploited, Mutonji’s characters are thrust into situations in which they must find ways of normalizing trauma as a means of survival. Mutonji is masterful in her ability to trace the nuances of girlhood, from admiration for an older (more developed) cousin who seems much more worldly to the unattainable beauty of a best friend who is as street-smart as she is stunning.

Mutonji writes with grit and quick-witted humour. The ease with which these stories unfold is a facet of the author’s craft: the prose holds its emotion in the same way the characters hold their pain. The narratives shift from past to present in short vignettes, but Loli’s strength is the constant presence running through the collection. Mutonji works diligently – and seemingly effortlessly – at ensuring that her protagonist is not a one-dimensional stereotype. The complexities of being a Black woman, the way Loli adapts to environments (such as high school or a family function) in response to how she is perceived, are aspects of the author’s deep commitment to the realism of her narrative.

Coconut Dreams, Derek Mascarenhas’s debut collection, follows the journey of the Pinto family, South Asian immigrants in Canada, through the eyes of two siblings, Aiden and Ally. The stories are haunting in their poeticism and richness, evoking the childhood joys of riding bicycles in the street or the anticipation of jumping in a pile of autumn leaves. However, under the playfulness of growing up lurks the ever-present spectre of loss and the inescapable prospect of not belonging.

Mascarenhas is brilliant in capturing the first-generation immigrant experience, with attention given to the particularities of being a South Asian kid growing up in a mostly white suburban town. The innocence of childhood is mired in the depths of something unseen but deeply felt. Both Aiden and Ally sit with the discomfort of knowing they’re seen differently – as Ally puts it, “Mom is always telling us how being different is a blessing, and how we’d understand when we’re older. Right now, I don’t believe her. Different means you’re different.”

Mascarenhas writes with precision, shifting from one character’s perspective to another’s with an ease that is admirable and engrossing. What is most fascinating about these stories is their accuracy at depicting the ways in which children come to understand  painful truths: often accidentally, sometimes the hard way. In “Learning to Care,” Aiden becomes the observer of injustice, unsure of whether to intervene on behalf of his friend in the face of a homophobic bully. The intersectionality of privilege is subtly hinted at here in the recognition that Aiden, even though he is a South Asian kid, feels he has the ability to step in and speak up in the first place. By contrast, the story “Fallen Leaves” depicts Aiden as the victim of bullying by a racist adult; in this instance, we hold our breaths to see if his white friends will assert their privilege by stepping in to advocate for him.

Mutonji similarly investigates the structural and societal bedrocks of racism, shadeism, and white privilege. In one case, a white boyfriend admits the racism underpinning his lack of attraction to his Black girlfriend (and the expectation that she will hold space for his realization); elsewhere, a white teenager describes a popular student as having “jungle fever.”

Both Mascarenhas and Mutonji write from perspectives that will allow third-culture kids to recognize their own experiences. Their styles are vastly different – Mutonji’s is stark and visceral, while Mascarenhas is generous and comforting in his use of sensory detail – but they share an admirably lucid ability to capture BIPOC experiences without resorting to tired tropes or stereotypes.

Coconut Dreams and Shut Up You’re Pretty are stunning debuts from exciting authors who are firmly rooted in place and placelessness. These collections peel back the trauma and beauty of the human experience in all its complexity and magic.