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Vol. 10 No. 3 · 4 February 1988
Diary

Being Rahila Khan

Toby Forward

2623 words

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.

Working with them was enjoyable, if confusing sometimes. I thought of getting together with a little old lady in Worthing to write some sharp little stories she had in mind but it never came off. I did write a poem, called ‘Two Fingers’, with Judy Delaghty, about a young woman losing her virginity in a drunken and brutal way at a party, but there’s not much of a market for poems. It was quite personal for me, but Judy thought it was a parable about the Church of England screwing up women and put lots of Biblical and liturgical resonances in it that I didn’t think most people would notice. There was also a rather dizzy girl called R. Maisie Banks, who wanted me to work on a Mills and Boon with her just for the cash, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it. I still see her sometimes and the book is part-written, but it’s hard going and we don’t do much.

Really, it was only Rahila who was getting anywhere. The producer had encouraged her to send the stories to publishers. She tried Spare Rib, who showed a lot of interest, and even seemed to think they’d published one, but they were a bit confused with their fiction editor going away and a new one taking over. The Women’s Press were very keen, but took ages and ages, so we sent them to Virago for their ‘Upstarts’ series, with an explanation about the Women’s Press having them already. They grabbed them, showing a remarkable lack of sisterly solidarity, we thought, and saying: ‘The Women’s Press have kept you waiting for a long time, so that you needn’t feel at all awkward about approaching other publishers. In fact, I think you were quite right to.’ All in all, though, they were terrifically enthusiastic and encouraging; efficient in their business and very caring in the way they treated us. It was a model of how to look after a new author. I said to Rahila that they’d like to meet us, and that the stories were good enough by the sound of it, no matter who had written them. Rahila disagreed and said we had to do everything by letter. I said that a feminist story was a feminist story, and that was that. Rahila thought that there were people who didn’t think that men could be feminists and I’d better keep out of it. After all, look at what had happened with the stories for the wireless. So I wrote to Virago and said we couldn’t meet and I’d better pull out of the deal, but they wrote quickly back and said it would be all right. I’d rather hoped they’d back out, but there it was.

At the editorial stage, there was an interesting exchange of letters. The editor asked why the stories about white boys were in the first person when the stories about Asian girls were in the third person. ‘I wondered whether this represented your feelings about the place of Asian women particularly in Britain, that the sense of “otherness” is still so great that it feels still an impossibility to write in the first person as opposed to the third.’ This was a bit of a bugger. It brought the central question home sharply to me. It was perceptive and penetrating.

The question was also posed because the Women’s Press had finally accepted one of my stories for a new anthology they were doing, but they had asked me to rewrite it in the first person, so I had already thought about it a bit. I wrote back to the Virago editor: ‘I suppose there are several reasons: some stories seem to require a narrator’s involvement while others benefit from a cooler approach (but that’s simplistic); these are my first attempts at writing fiction and I’m experimenting (but “Winter Wind” is being anthologised by the Women’s Press and they asked me to rewrite it in the first person. It was an odd experience re-drafting it in that way); writing defines the writer as well as the material and I’m trying to work out things about myself through the stories (and I hope that doesn’t spoil the truthfulness of them – in a sense they are all about me and none of them is about me. I hope that doesn’t seem pretentious, but I’m interested in how people define themselves).’ That seemed to me to be both honest and opaque.

At least it made me admit something for the first time. Rahila Khan was me. She wasn’t just the distancing agent I’d intended her to be (in a strange way, it wasn’t as bad seeing her work rejected as it would have been if my name had been on it, owning up to it): rather she was a way of sharpening up and defining certain realities about myself. The sense of being an ‘outsider’ that the Virago editor talked about isn’t a female or a black experience, but a universal one. Separation, isolation, uncertainty and lack of definition are the common material of humanity. The stories people write are examples of this state that help us to accept it in ourselves. My own alienation was too personal and painful for me to write about, but it gave me a way into the lives and minds of others who for different reasons and in different circumstances felt something of the same things. It seemed to have been successful; people had been moved by the stories. One Advisory Teacher in ILEA had written to me about a broadcast: ‘Your story was so sensitively written that many of us who heard it were reduced almost to tears as we felt the conflict experienced by the child.’

I’d failed to pull out of the deal with Virago and now it got more and more uncomfortable. At last a contract arrived and I thought there was a humorous providence at work as I signed and dated it April the First. But who was the fool? Them for not checking me, or me for hiding myself in a self-destroying disguise? They wanted a photograph for the cover. They wanted a biographical note. All the time the worry persisted that it wasn’t the stories they were buying, it was Rahila Khan. I was by now beginning to work with an agent. She had approached me as Rahila Khan, so all that was by letter as well. Even the letters to her and to Virago were literary inventions. How would she write? How could I ask my questions in her voice? Nervously, I suggested to the agent that there was some ‘tokenism’ going on, but she was insistent that this was wrong. The stories were good. I wasn’t sure.

I gave Virago the biographical note – all quite accurate, but no photograph. When the book was published my first-person account of myself had been re-drafted into the third person, with ‘she’ used about me. Rahila Khan now had a personality and a past.

I had learned that the image of the isolated writer getting on with the work is a false one. Publishing is about meeting people, giving interviews, going to launches and lunches. I had sent the agent a novel and she liked it. It had to go to Virago because they had an option on the next book. We must meet. Virago arranged an interview with the Guardian, who were doing a thing on new Asian women writers. Why wouldn’t I go? Would I write an article for Young Guardian about the problems of Asian teenagers? My BBC producer wanted some radio talks, written and read by Rahila Khan. A BBC Television drama producer liked my play but it wasn’t right in its present form, but if I’d like to meet her to do some work on it ...

The unspoken assumption behind most of this was that all imaginative literature, all fiction, is autobiographical. Later I was to be accused of pretending to occupy a position I didn’t hold, to speak with a voice that wasn’t mine. I had thought that that was the purpose of art.

Times have changed. Charlotte Brontë concealed her identity so that she could be taken seriously; a man could write Jane Eyre but a woman could not. A woman writes as a man so that she can write about a woman. A white man writes as an Asian woman so that he can write about an Asian girl. At first it seems as though the emphasis has changed from a prejudice in favour of men to a prejudice in favour of genuine experience. But there’s more to it than that. Rahila Khan wrote five stories for Virago about white teenage boys and they have never questioned her authority to do so. Experience is clearly not the key, so there must be something else. It would be good to be able to believe that racism and sexism were not at the root of it: but how else can an Asian woman be given licence to do what is not allowed to a white man?

In the end, I nervously arranged a meeting with my agent. My panic was partly to do with wondering how she would react to my odd story, but more concerned with my real shyness at revealing myself to a stranger as a person who would like to write. This disclosure is painful; it re-defines me to myself and to others. Quite sensibly and realistically, the agent encouraged me to let Virago know what had happened and to trust to their good sense, good business and basic humanity. The rest is now public knowledge.

Rahila Khan, Tom Dale, R. Maisie Banks, Judy Delaghty, and a couple of others I haven’t mentioned, all helped me to scroll the words through the processor. They were useful camouflage, I suppose, but they were more than that. They released me from the obligation of being what I seem to be so that I can write as I really am. The pseudonyms are creative and dynamic, and the fuss and bother about feminism and racism and Rahila Khan is really only a side-issue. That was an accident of history and of the present state of English publishing. There are no-go areas for a priest, and if my novel ever does see the inside of a book-jacket it will cause some raised eyebrows and acid comments among puritans, but that wasn’t the primary impulse for pseudonymity. And yet it has to be admitted that the day-to-day work of a parish priest isn’t likely to be made any easier if he is known as someone who has written a novel dealing in a fairly explicit manner with teenagers and sex.

As I said, I miss Rahila Khan. She was the part of me that writes. Now that she’s gone I don’t write any more. I hope it won’t last, but perhaps it will. I don’t know what I’ll do then. Perhaps I’ll have to start right back from the beginning, find another collaborator and try again. Tom Stoppard said that he sometimes sees things that he’s written and thinks that he doesn’t know how he ever did it and wonders if he can do it again. The stories are there in my head, they keep on coming, but I haven’t got the voice to tell them in any more. It might change if another publisher buys the short stories and the novel. If I see them on the shelves with my name on them this time, I might believe that I wrote them. The novel that’s looking for a home is called Dead Young. I hope that doesn’t turn out to be the ironic postscript to the writing career of

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Letters

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.’

Raffat Khan
London N10

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’.

Christopher MacLehose
Collins Harvill, London W1

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.

Toby Forward
Brighton

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.

Neil Berry
London N5

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!

Roderigo Lopez
Lisbon

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