Toby Forward

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