A Critic Considers
Stephanie Nettell on issues that for her are raised by a recent publishing event
What’s in a Name
When Virago, the feminist publishers, launched the second wave of their teenage list, Upstarts, it included Down the Road, Worlds Away, by Rahila Khan, a collection of stories with a powerful edge which cut between the embattled worlds of a British Asian girl and a young white tough. Reviewers like me welcomed Khan as a fine discovery.
A month later came the real discovery: Rahila Khan was white and a man. Understandably embarrassed and hurt, less understandably morally outraged, Virago rushed to withdraw the book. It was angry, said its press release, on its own behalf as a feminist publishing house, on behalf of its teenage readers and particularly on behalf of its Asian audience. It was ‘distressed that this attempt to represent the Asian community should transpire to he a cruel hoax.’ Three months later their sole contact with their author was a written demand to he compensated for all their publishing costs. Livewire, from The Women’s Press, who included a story in their collection, A Girl’s Best Friend, were equally furious at what they saw as deliberate deception, though not in a position to withdraw the whole book: ‘It’s incredible how some men feel compelled to invade women’s space.’
The villain turned out to be Toby Forward, a 37-year-old parish priest of St Augustan’s and St Saviour’s in Brighton, and his villainy, I believe, one of folly rather than wickedness. No one reading these stories, about the burdens of love and hate in the world of today’s young, and the different aspects of a God people carry in their hearts, could believe in ‘a cruel hoax’. To be a priest, he had felt, would mean his stories would never be read: ‘They’re sit-com characters, not to be taken seriously – no one believes priests can do anything.’ And much of the subsequent press treatment proved his point.
His biographical note is true except for the personal pronoun (added unwittingly by Virago). He is married with two daughters; he taught in a large comprehensive in Derby and in an independent C of E secondary school in Peterborough, where he introduced multi-cultural studies into his religious education classes – or ‘wog religions’ as one colleague put it. At that time he found nothing in fiction to help white and Asian kids understand each other’s beliefs, pressures and conflicts. So began what has amounted to a crusade as an anti-racist and, yes, a feminist.
He sent ‘Daughters of the Prophet’ to Radio 4’s Morning Story, using the name Rahila Khan because he thought, given the setting, it would make it more acceptable. It was rejected – the subject, circumcision, not quite the thing for that slot – but they asked for more. ‘Pictures’, about a small girl’s painting of a brown Mary and Babyjesus being ‘too good, dear’ to put on the wall by her infant teacher and stuffed anxiously into the bin by her mother, was accepted, and five more followed. The producer thought highly enough of them to send them to publishers John Murray, who said a book of short stories by a new writer was unthinkable, but was there a novel?
Rahila Khan was in too deep to escape. He tried to kill her off, writing stories under another, male, name – some taken, some rejected – but hearing Virago were searching for new writers of her kind, she survived. ‘I read Fay Weldon in the Guardian on how a writer will do anything, absolutely anything, to get published, and I knew what she meant.’ Somehow the right moment to reveal himself never came, until, with a novel completed, he found an agent who more realistically recognised that Virago had to be told.
The situation has raised a host of intriguing questions. A contract using a pseudonym has always been valid, even if the publisher is unaware of the true identity (no one discovered who Ben Traven was in his lifetime) and even if, like Doris Lessing’s recent ploy to discover if she would be published and well reviewed without her name, it’s a case of wilful deception: Forward reckons it is he who could sue Virago for loss of earnings, if law-suits were his line. Male/female pseudonyms are legion, from time-honoured literary ones like George Eliot and Currer Bell to all those who choose a name, or disguise their own with initials, to sell genre fiction, whether Westerns, romances, thrillers or detective novels – would ‘Rosalind Erskine’s’ Passion Flower Hotel have been a bestseller if ‘Roger Longrigg’ had written it? Virago’s contract at one point uses the feminine ‘her’, but this is legally irrelevant – contracts have traditionally used masculine pronouns for women.
It’s hard to see, then, on what grounds Virago could pursue their case. Which leaves the moral question of hoaxing the public, especially one perceived as vulnerable. Are those young readers who still think Jan Mark, Gene Kemp, S E Hinton and K M Peyton are men, and Jan Needle and Catherine Sefton are women, being cruelly hoodwinked? It is not unknown for writers who are confident of their knowledge to change their names racially to lend more credence. Lobsang Rampa was a huge bestseller before being rumbled as Herbert Hoskins, a butcher’s apprentice from the west country, but no one sued, while James Kirkup has written both as Tsuyuki Shigeru and Terahata Jun, and, facing the other way, Rustam Mehta as both R J Martin and Roger Hartman.
Nothing about the book, or its packaging and publicity (all Virago’s, even the title, which Forward himself disliked), suggested it was aimed specifically at, or represented, the Asian community. Indeed, with its alternating viewpoints, someone might have asked how an Asian woman could speak for a white, working-class boy. Virago assumed from the name, naturally but not with 100 per cent safety, that their author was Asian, but she might have married an Asian, or even, like my 16-year-old friend who has been known as Shanti instead of Claire from the age of six, taken a name she simply admired.
They had thought, rightly, that the book was ideal for their list. They can scarcely say now that it was not good enough (as they might have at manuscript stage if they had wanted to reject it on feminist grounds), but that because it was by an Asian woman they had nevertheless taken it. So their refusal to publish must be solely on the grounds of the author’s sex, surely an act of discrimination? The law at the moment is thinking only of job opportunities, and when asked about publishing reels back in astonishment laced with relish at a knotty problem, but are not authors trying to earn a living? Even as a feminist publishing principle, however, it is shaky – they have allowed Wells and Shaw into the Virago list.
It is perceptions that matter, and they may not be logical. For me, it is what’s on the page that counts. Do we regard Jan Morris’s travel writing differently from James Morris’s, and if so, why’? Do we mind if ‘Homer’ never existed as one man? Virago’s sense of betrayal, their belief that the author has lost credibility, really springs from a gut feeling that only a woman can see into the hearts of women, and only a black has the right to portray, or suffer for, blacks. And all literature says that is a nonsense.
Stephanie Nettell is Children’s Book Editor of the Guardian.