It came as quite a shock when I lost Rahila Khan. I’d known her for two years and we were very close. I told my agent that Rahila wanted to write a letter to the Guardian about a witless piece that they had done about her, but the agent was firm. ‘No. No more Rahila Khan. She’s finished.’ I was upset. We’d done a lot together in just two years.
Rahila Khan and I wrote our first story for BBC Radio at the end of August 1985. We didn’t put my name on it. It was rejected, as not quite suitable, but with an encouraging letter saying that she wrote well and should try sending it to the women’s magazines. We were more pleased than disappointed, so we set to work to write another – after all, the producer had asked her to send something else and had said that they wanted things ‘with a genuine “ethnic” background’ because they didn’t get many. I managed to separate the responses. The failure was Rahila Khan’s; the praise was mine, secretly.
Rahila and I knew that getting published was difficult, getting read on the BBC was hard, so we were encouraged and sent them another that turned out to be our first success. ‘Pictures’ was broadcast, repeated, received many letters of admiration and even a large article in the Times Educational Supplement which said: ‘The story, exquisitely-written, almost persuaded me that literature still has some relevance to life. I would like it to be used in all initial-training courses.’ Directors of multi-cultural teaching centres wrote in asking where they could buy it.
We had found a gap in the market and we set about filling it. All the stories from then on were accepted. The producer said she’d love to see Rahila ‘if she was ever in London’; she was unfailingly kind in her criticism of the stories and patient with revisions. She took a lot of time with us. It was like getting a free writing-course. I was very pleased for Rahila and didn’t mind that my name wasn’t on anything. I liked it better that way.
After a while we tried some stories that weren’t about Asian teenagers, but the producer didn’t like them and sent them back saying they weren’t as good as the others. She didn’t even suggest revision, which was odd. We didn’t know whether there wasn’t room for ‘English’ stories, or if they really weren’t much good, or if the producer just expected Asian themes from an Asian and English themes from a white person.
To test it out, I wrote a story with Tom Dale. It was a country-house murder with a twist at the end. Very English. We sent it to the head of Morning Story to get a fresh opinion, but it landed on the same producer’s desk. To our surprise, she liked it, and it was broadcast. By now, it was getting quite difficult for me, writing some stories with Rahila and some with Tom Dale. We did them on different typewriters and with a different lay-out. When Tom Dale made a mistake – like not keeping a copy of a script that needed revision – the producer told him off quite sharply, not at all the way she wrote to Rahila Khan; and he was never invited to London to meet her. Rahila felt a bit guilty about this and sometimes Tom sulked and wouldn’t write any more stories, but he had to in the end if something English grew in his mind that Rahila couldn’t use.
Vol. 10 No. 4 · 18 February 1988
SIR: If the Rev. Toby Forward finds another collaborator and sends the memoirs of a Russian dissident to Harvill, I hope he will be less surprised, however far along the process of its publication we might be before the deception were revealed, when the book and its cancelled contract come winging back to him. Publishers have a responsibility to all their authors in what they publish, and anyone who doesn’t recognise how far Virago honours that responsibility does not know much about ‘their good sense, good business and basic humanity’.
Collins Harvill, London W1
Vol. 10 No. 6 · 17 March 1988
SIR: My response to the Vicar and Virago mayhem was a sense of outrage. Concerned that this visceral reaction might be a personal one, I spent a couple of days speaking to representatives of various Asian women’s groups in my borough, giving them Toby Forward’s essay (LRB, 4 February) to read. I also discussed the case with English people. Immediately the issues split along racial and political lines: host community and minority. The argument also fell into two groups. There were a few English men and women who empathised with me and were incensed about the deception but for many it was a storm in a tea cup. Their argument ran that the identity or provenance of a work of literature should not be a factor in its literary appraisal: a rose by any name; Doris Lessing’s Jane Somers’s Diaries and the uncertain authorship of Shakespeare’s works were mentioned. (An interesting sidelight is that two of the Booker Prize shortlisted novels, Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd and Circles of Deceit by Nina Bawden, were about artistic deception.) Others said it was simply a case of supply and demand, the brute force of the market; that Toby Forward, like all PR men, had astutely realised that the image of the product was frequently more marketable than the substance, and had manipulated the system under the defence of necessity. The more legally-minded said that a contract had been flouted.
Toby Forward tries to exonerate himself by saying that it was the system which was to blame. He had used various pseudonyms as catalysts to inspire his writing – ‘the pseudonyms were creative and dynamic’ – and presumably for a priest anonymity might have been judicious, though he doesn’t mention this as one of his reasons. He began to find that the Asian pseudonym aroused more interest than the others; he was encouraged by the BBC, his first outlet: ‘they wanted things with a genuine “ethnic” background because they didn’t get many.’ Instead of confessing his real identity he happily carried on under false pretences, receiving lengthy and kindly advice. The subterfuge had begun to gather momentum – he began to write for the different pseudonyms using different typewriters. ‘We had found a gap in the market and we set about filling it’: quite cold-blooded without worrying about the ethics of the thing. The ‘we’ being his doppelgänger, Rahila Khan. Toby Forward’s description of his collaboration with this created persona is bizarre and has echoes of Jekyll and Hyde (‘I said to Rahila that they’d like to meet us,’ ‘Rahila sulked,’ ‘Rahila was me … was the part of me that writes’).
Virago is a women’s publishing house. It has been an accoucheur to a variety of women’s writing from the classical and universally appealing to the unknown, the hesitant and those of a minority interest. I like to feel that there is positive discrimination in favour of voices that have been mute before now. For an Asian woman writer it is heartening to think that here is a publishing house that is not just giving the George Eliots of the world a chance to be heard, but which would like to consider writers who are not as sure of their medium or their audience. By the time Virago had received the ‘Rahila Khan’ manuscript Toby Forward had found himself inexorably caught up in his tangled web. Charmingly he confesses to having doubts but at the same time he makes no attempt to disabuse himself. To absolve himself he says: ‘Rahila disagreed and said we had to do everything by letter.’ (My four-year-old son has an imaginary friend and whenever he does something naughty he looks up at me and with complete conviction says: ‘I didn’t do it, Jack did it.’) Out of a mixture of cupidity and self-delusion he continues with his duplicity.
Speaking to Asian women – lawyers, university students; representatives of various Asian ‘action groups’ and ‘forums’ and ‘centres’: women from a variety of national, provincial and educational backgrounds, along the whole spectrum from purdah to permissiveness – I found that whether eloquent or inarticulate, they were unanimous in condemning the deception. Something sacred had been violated. ‘How can he know us?’ I replied that writers had created credible fictional characters of other races and sexes. Most women felt that he had no right to usurp a place that was theirs: ‘I don’t want to be demystified by an Englishman,’ said a lawyer. I pointed out that there weren’t many Asian women clamouring to be heard, but they said silence was better than deception since the ‘white community would read his work and consider it as diagnostic for the entire community.’ When they read about the interest and indeed indulgence that the BBC and the publishing houses had shown ‘Rahila Khan’ they felt it was wrong of Toby Forward to have exploited this special dispensation. Ultimately and very generously the consensus was that he should have written in his own name. ‘We would have felt happy that in multicultural Britain an Englishman can know us so well as to write about us with conviction.’ Writing in English presupposes a Western audience and for many the content was a cause for concern. One lady said it was probably the sensational nature of the work that had aroused ‘their’ interest. She was very critical of a recent book by an Indian woman living in Britain, In My Own Name by Sharangeet Shan, saying it had been published because ‘there is a lot about a vulnerable Asian woman being screwed by white men … otherwise it was boring and badly written.’
There have been very few women writers from the subcontinent who have written in English and been published in England: Anita Desai, Kamala Markandaya, Nyantara Sahgal, Bapsi Sidhwa, Meira Chand, Atiya Hosain, Bharati Mukherjee. There have been even fewer writers on the experience of exile, the immigrant’s world, of deracination. (The best exponent of this theme has been a man: V.S. Naipaul.) Kamala Markandaya wrote Nowhere Man many years ago, Timeri Murari wrote The Marriage and Hanif Kureishi has recently been writing on this theme. I can only attempt to explain this virtual silence. It could be inertia, the ‘crippled mind’ that V.S. Naipaul speaks of. Indians are often stymied by what others will think of them, they also look to others to do things for them: passing the buck is endemic. The other reason is the absence of a convention of literature as an ironic mirror to life. Historically, Indian poetry and legend and lately films have often been escapist in nature. The impact of the West made writers consider ordinary lives as appropriate subject-matter for literature: early Indian novelists like Prem Chand, Mirza Ruswa and Manto wrote realistic prose in their native languages after they had been influenced by Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens. Writing in English came later: here one was offering one’s work for criticism by an English audience or a very small English-speaking élite. Interpreting one’s culture and translating it for another, with all the limitations of emphasis, allusion and vocabulary, can be extremely inhibiting. For women writers there is another constraint: the intimate circles within which lives are lived. Purdah or the concept of modesty is a deeply ingrained trait. A woman is the keeper of the family’s honour, she has to censor every word she writes. But there is a new generation of Asian women who would prefer publication and possible damnation to remaining mute and possibly misrepresented. The reply of these ‘Rahila Khans’ would be: ‘This is our pitch, Rev. Toby Forward: we are coming.’
Vol. 10 No. 7 · 31 March 1988
SIR: Ms Khan’s letter (Letters, 17 March) seems to me to be an enlivening and intelligent contribution to this debate, though hostile and failing to grapple with the central point. I regret that she polarises the issue on racial lines, drawing a distinction between misguided but well-meaning whites – men and women – and reliable and authoritative Asian women. The persistent personal attack on my sanity and my morals is perhaps overstated to the detriment of the argument – ‘exonerate himself … false pretences … subterfuge … cold-blooded … bizarre … Jekyll and Hyde … cupidity and self-delusion … duplicity … usurp … deception’. The implied criticism of the quality of what I have written by associating it with a poor novel (in Ms Khan’s estimation) by Sharangeet Shah misfires because Ms Khan clearly has not read what I have written. My stories, far from being sensational, are gentle and domestic. But my greatest worry is about Ms Khan’s final sentence. I am delighted at the prospect of a wave of new Asian women writers, but I hope they don’t limit themselves to writing only about Asians and only about women. There is no ‘pitch’, and this is my main point and has been throughout. I want these new people Ms Khan mentions to be writers, not Asians, not women, but writers, able to turn their attention to anyone. Unless Ms Khan concedes this point, she does her self and literature a great disservice.
Vol. 10 No. 8 · 21 April 1988
SIR: The ill-tempered reactions to the Reverend Toby Forward’s pseudonymous short stories, Down the Road, Worlds Away, seem wilfully indifferent to a basic consideration: is Forward’s stuff any good, are his stories worth reading? Instead, the whole ‘argument’ has turned on the question: is a white man entitled to impersonate a young Asian woman writer – or even to write about Asian Britons at all? It’s worth recalling that both the BBC and Virago thought well enough of Forward’s material in the first instance. There was indeed something of a consensus about the stories’ merits. It is not words on the page, however, which seem to concern Raffat Khan (Letters, 17 March) – only what a sample group of Asian women think about what Forward did. Khan, one notes, distributed among them copies not of Forward/Rahila Khan’s short stories but of the apologia which Forward published in the London Review of Books. The verdict has been returned that in publishing stories under the pen-name Rahila Khan the vicar behaved outrageously. The literary qualities of the stories seem not to have been an issue here. No indication is given that Raffat Khan or her respondents have even read them. Khan’s vox pop also yielded the observation, from an Asian woman, that In my Own Name by Sharan-Jeet Shan is ‘boring and badly written’. That, in my view, is a gratuitous slur on a good book. In my Own Name, a poignant memoir of a forced marriage, was appreciatively reviewed in New Society by no less a figure than D.A.N. Jones – who on that occasion paid particular attention to the author’s writing.
Vol. 10 No. 9 · 5 May 1988
SIR: I rejoice to concur with the feelings expressed in Ms Khan’s recent letter (Letters, 17 March). English writers have no right to do such things! Take my own case. An obscure English actor composes a play loosely based on my own appalling experiences as a Jewish immigrant at the hands of British justice. He even dares to put a plea for racial tolerance into my own mouth. Although he attempts to disguise the truth by setting his drama in Venice, and (some say) writes under a pseudonym, he does not fool me. How dare he: I demand my pound of flesh!