“The next time someone asks me how I ended up writing books, this is what I’m going to tell them: I write the books I wish 17-year-old me had found after that episode of Brookside”
WORDS TANYA BYRNE, IMAGE MAYA ZIYU
People often ask me how I ended up writing books. The truth is, I don’t know.
I was hardly Matilda. I grew up in a house where the only books we had were a cherished set of Encyclopædia Britannica and a collection of The Complete Plays of Shakespeare, which I was tasked with dusting every Saturday.
The television was always on, though. My days bookended as a child by BBC Breakfast in the morning and Brookside in the evening, which is when I’d usually make a passionate (if ultimately unsuccessful) plea to be allowed to stay up to watch it.
By the time I succeeded, I was a teenager so swiftly lost interest in favour of sulking in my room, listening to Promise Me by Beverley Craven and agonising over my split ends.
One evening, I went downstairs to get a mug of boiling water for my V05 Hot Oil, but as I passed through the living room, my mother switched the channel mid-way through an episode of Brookside. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but the next day I discovered why: two of the characters – Beth and Margaret – were about to kiss.
Sadly for my mother, her efforts to shield 17-year-old me from the horrors of two women kissing failed because it was all anyone talked about for weeks. I remember recording the omnibus and waiting for her to go upstairs so I could retrieve the VHS with the sort of stealth usually reserved for robbing a bank.
After the uproar, I expected something explicit, but it was like every other kiss I’d seen in soaps. I tried to tell my mother that, but she said, “It’s unnatural” and we never spoke of it again. It was a shame for many reasons. Not just because I was beginning to realise that I’d quite like to kiss a girl myself and it would have been nice to talk to her about that, but because that was when I knew I couldn’t talk to her about it because she – and everyone else clutching their pearls on the news – thought it was “unnatural”.
So, it may seem strange when I say these stories are important. I know that episode of Brookside didn’t end well in my case, but my mother was Guyanese, where “homosexual acts” are still illegal. On top of that, she was Catholic, so asking her to question everything she believed was beyond my reach at 17. But that’s why it was so important, because it not only made me feel less alone, but it made me feel seen in a way I never had been before. After all, it was 1994, when mainstream queer representation was almost exclusively limited to men. I knew lesbians existed, but it was the first time I’d seen two girls kissing on television.
Twenty-seven years later, here I am, writing my own stories about girls kissing. So, the next time someone asks me how I ended up writing books, this is what I’m going to tell them: I write the books I wish 17-year-old me had found after that episode of Brookside so she could see that kissing a girl is the furthest thing from unnatural. I write books for 17-year-old me who needed to see herself loving and being loved and not having to change a thing about herself. And I write books because one day, they won’t be rare or special or important, they’ll just be stories. Which is all they should be.
After Love (Hodder, £7.99) by Tanya Byrne, is out now.
DIVA magazine celebrates 27 years in print in 2021. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQI media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable.