Kahlia Bakosi on Mum’s the Word, motherhood and the modern family

What does it mean to be a mother? Does it dictate the course of a women’s life, the choices she makes, who she is, or even who she will forever be? And when do a mother’s bad decisions make them a bad person?

These are questions that multi-talented author Kahlia Bakosi explores in her chilling short story, Mum’s the Word.

LOVE, MOTHERING AND MURDER

The story centres on mother Natalie and what happens when the life she has carefully built is shattered by the murder of one of her three children. But, steadily, as the tale unfolds you discover that Natalie’s life may be not as spotless – and her love not as unconditional – as it first appears.

“She wants to do right by her family,” Bakosi tells Fringe Frequency. “She’s one of those people who has probably grown up a perfectionist, someone who always wants to be seen in good light. You know, there’s some people who can’t even cope with someone thinking bad of them: they always want to be in everyone’s good books. I think, Natalie felt becoming a mum was her greatest calling… anything that threatened that perfect image of what she wanted her life to be she felt she had to go against.

“So, the book really challenges what it means to be a mum. Do you ever stop being a mum?

“Ultimately, it’s her dark thoughts and what guides her decision making that I was exploring throughout the course of the book. The way in which she thinks and she rationalises what is right for a mother to do. And the fact that she’s got the other people calling her mum: does she have the same loyalty to them? Because she’s the only one who really seems to know the truth about where they all come from. I thought it would be quite an interesting perspective to explore.”

Mum’s the Word is something of a departure from Bakosi’s other projects. It’s darker tone might appear kin to a Dreda Say Mitchell book. Her first short story, Twice, is about how private love affairs rarely stay private in the small social world of London. But what they both share is a compact page length – 64-pages in the case of Mum’s the Word – and discourse that’s free from filler.

“I’m trying to cultivate my own genre of short stories,” Bakosi explains. “I only want to ever have six chapters in each of them. So, I’m trying to challenge myself how best to tell a story. I don’t want to give too much information, because I’d like people to have the experience where they’re reading the book and they ask questions, and they begin to hypothesise as to what this could mean, or what that could look like.

“I quite like receiving feedback about the stories and what they make people think. So, I don’t like giving too much information and description in every scenario, because there is a lot of power in leaving some things blank for the reader’s imagination to run wild with.”

A MEDITATION ON MOTHERHOOD

Favouritism, adultery and jealously all appear to be motivations for the characters Natalie and her husband, Michael, whose bad romance would be lapped up by tabloid newspapers and screenwriters eager to expose the so-called “truth” behind this failed mother figure in the real world.

When asked who she sees her book appealing to, Bakosi says: “I see the book being for anyone who wants to read a short story that is quite psychologically challenging”, with a brief chuckle.

“Right now, the majority of people are in fractured families, or modified families, or various variations of the nuclear family. So, I thought that was an interesting topic to dance around in the book” – Kahlia Bakosi

“I really like watching things that are based on real life scenarios, but they’re really unbelievable. So, when you hear a mum could kill her kid and put the remains in the freezer that makes me think: who are these people, and how do they blend in with the rest of us, who wouldn’t do those things?

“So, things like that interest me in regards to how multifaceted we can be as people. How we can appear to be one thing, but we lock our doors when we come inside, and then we’re free to be who we really are. Those kinds of things really intrigue me.”

Through the course of writing the book, Bakosi trialled passages of it on her eldest sister, Clara, who had just become a mother herself. “I thought it would be really interesting just to see if she’s all in her feelings, because of hormones, or if she was actually going be like, ‘this woman [Natalie] is filth!’”

Macabre and unsettling, Bakosi agrees that her latest book is a meditation on motherhood.

“I think so. I think, even watching my sister, who’s just had a baby – the first out of my two sisters to have a kid – just seeing how difficult it actually is in person. But then, in contrast, Beyoncé’s just given birth to two human beings, and she’s doing photo shoots, and we don’t necessarily get the image of her looking tired at 4am side of it all. So, as a regular person, you’re confronted with all these images of all these celebrities who can have their baby, and snapback in two weeks and be wearing a bikini. And even what is promoted on Mother’s Day – flowers, chocolates and thank yous – but it’s not “thank you for…”, and then listing all the various things that a mother would do, or has done.

“And I think also, in being a mum, I mean, I’m not a mum, but from what I’ve been researching and seeing, there seems to be this element of… not guilt, but you feel indebted to your child, because, ultimately, they didn’t ask to be here. So, you do everything in your power to ensure that they’re safe, that they’re alright, but also that nothing that could ever harm them ends up harming them.”

“I just feel compelled to tell stories. I like describing things. I like entertaining. And, more importantly, just my type of voice in storytelling… that kind of voice that is young and modern, yet very London” – Kahlia Bakosi

Bakosi’s own experiences as a school teacher in south London also informed her writing when it came to the dynamics of the modern family.

“Being in a school environment, the mix of children that are gathered into a classroom: you have so many different home experiences. It was really interesting to me to ask a class, ‘how many of you live with both of your parents?’, and two children put their hands up. And just coming to hear various breakdowns in families generally.

“I think the different family dynamics that exist now probably would have seemed alien many, many years ago. They have just become the norm now.

“I don’t think I know many people who don’t have a half-sibling or who live with both parents. Those things are a pleasant surprise when I hear them. Because, right now, the majority of people are in fractured families, or modified families, or various variations of the nuclear family. So, I thought that was an interesting topic to dance around in the book.”

PAPERBACK WRITER: THEN, NOW AND FOREVER

Bakosi’s Mum’s the Word was self-published electronically and in print last month. The response from readers has been positive, and Bakosi says a few book clubs have also enquired about it.

Next up, Bakosi says she’s planning on writing a sequel to Twice.

Book writing is only one part of her creative pursuits, however. Originally studying to become a playwright at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Bakosi describes herself as “a creative that loves writing in any format”. She has written a play, called Bottle Up and Explode, which is due to be performed at The Courtyard Theatre in October. She is also screenwriting for a web series. And, somehow, has also findings the time songwrite and collaborate with the south London music duo that defies labels, 808ink.

Just a few things going, then. But book writing it seems will always be a favourite medium of hers.

“I just feel compelled to tell stories,” says Bakosi, when asked what drives her to write. “I like describing things. I like entertaining. And, I think, more importantly, just my type of voice in storytelling, I guess, is what I haven’t necessarily always seen in books.

“That kind of voice that is young and modern, yet very London. And not so… ‘In cottage, far away, Helen and Miriam were drinking tea…’ You know, that kind of a thing? I like to offer something that people can relate to.

“That’s what I found as feedback for my first book. I had a lot of people telling me they literally couldn’t put it down, because they were on the phone to a friend, giving them all the gossip – they just couldn’t drop the book. So, that makes me want to write even more, and keep people entertained.”

With her surefooted desire to express the exchanges and nuances of modern life through her work, Bakosi is forging her own path in the creative world. One which is fuelled by her proactive attitude, her embrace of independent publishing and her relationship with her supporters.

“I understand that my work won’t be for everyone, and I can accept and appreciate that. But I think the people who like my stuff will gravitate towards it, so ultimately, that’s who I’m writing for, and that’s what compels me to write.”

Mum’s the Word by Kahlia Bakosi is out now. You can order it here. To keep up with all of Bakosi’s creative pursuits, follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Images: Josh Allen (main); Hanna Hillier (body)