Long before the current debates about diversity in publishing, one house was putting women writers on the mapby Frances Wilson / March 2, 2020 / Leave a comment
In 1987, the feminist publishing house Virago published a collection of stories featuring British Asian girls caught in the conflicting demands of home and school. The author of Down the Road, Worlds Away was a 38-year-old mother of two called Rahila Khan, whose fiction had already been aired on Radio 4. “With hard-eyed realism and poignant simplicity,” the book’s blurb read, “Rahila Khan brilliantly gives voice to uneasy youth.” Virago’s remit, as Lennie Goodings puts it in A Bite of the Apple, was “to publish the stories of women’s everyday lives, stories previously not thought worth telling and recording,” and these tales perfectly fitted the bill.
The problem was that Rahila Khan did not exist. The author of Down the Road, Worlds Away was in reality an Anglican vicar called Toby Forward impersonating an Asian woman. He practised this deception, he said, because vicars were considered sitcom characters and he wanted to be taken more seriously. Forward decided “to let Virago know what had happened and to trust to their good sense, good business and basic humanity,” as he wrote in a confession piece in the London Review of Books. Goodings, who recently stepped down as Virago’s boss after 40 years with the firm, devotes two pages of her buoyant memoir to the fiasco.
“Outraged” by the deception, Goodings ordered all remaining copies of Forward’s stories to be pulped. “I now see this was a little extreme,” she writes. “We could probably have laughed it off—and then pulped his book.” The scandal, which created much hilarity in the press, fed the nation’s anti-feminism and belittled the urgency of Virago’s larger project. But it also stimulated genuine discussion. “Aside from thoughts on racism, lies, and feminism,” Goodings recalls, “a conversation and questions about the text emerged.”
“Does it matter who wrote it if a book is good? Our answer: well, it also depends how you are presenting the book. Question: what about the Brontës—they published under false, male names? Answer: they had to. Question: can you tell the difference between male and female writing? Answer: no. Question: is it true that female writers of colour have an easier ride than white men in getting published? Answer: no, look around you. Question: did the Reverend…