Desperate situations require equally desperate measures. Two Mondays ago, I discovered that one of my courses in the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona was at risk of being cancelled because of low enrolment. I took immediate action.
I designed an ad with the seductive headline, ‘Looking for hot sex?’ Romance appeared on the second line in small print and in brackets. It wasn’t quite an afterthought. But it didn’t get top billing. Sex was definitely the ‘grabber.’ Everybody knows that sex sells: alcohol, cars, medicine, insurance, pet food, airline tickets, toilet paper – just about everything. So why not literature, the mother of all advertising stories?
To be honest, this wasn’t a case of bait-and-switch: appealing to fiery passion and delivering cold reason. There was a lot of both sex and romance in the required texts for the course, African/Diaspora Women’s Narrative. I simply highlighted some of the ‘hot’ issues in the books.
Toni Morrison’s novel, Tar Baby, was hyped in this way: “A ‘high-colour’ fashion model in Paris swops her white lover for a black man.” This was the hook for Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel, Changes: “A Ghanaian woman divorces her insecure husband and becomes the second wife of a sexy, polygamous Muslim.”
“The widow of an upwardly mobile African-American man remembers their passionate lovemaking”. That’s how Paule Marshall’s novel, Praisesong for the Widow, was marketed. The most difficult book on the course, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, written by Erna Brodber, was undressed to bare essentials: “A Jamaican woman falls in love with a black militant, loses her head and finds her culture.”
The tag line for Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy came as easily as the heroine: “An upright young woman from the Caribbean searches for hot sex in urban America.” The only book in which the main character was too young to be having sex was Nervous Conditions, written by the Zimbabwean novelist and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga. So instead of focusing on sex, I highlighted sexism. Not entirely unrelated but not quite the same.
Selling literary sex toys
By the end of the week, the number of students registered in the course more than doubled and we were good to go. And they kept on coming. The number tripled last week. I’m not claiming that my unorthodox advertising campaign was the only reason for the dramatic increase. Students often register late. But sexy marketing couldn’t have hurt.
The department secretary, Mr. Doniq Salmon, reported that, as he was putting up flyers, he was almost run over by eager students wanting to see what it was all about. One of them thought we were selling sex toys! Interestingly, what the ad revealed was just how prudish Jamaican society really is – even in the supposedly liberal environment of a university.
One of my male colleagues confessed that the ad did catch his attention but he hadn’t wanted anyone to see him reading it in the open. After all, he was a respectable married man, presumably getting hot sex and romance at home. He was delighted to find the ad on another notice board in a less public location that allowed him to satisfy his desire to read it in relative privacy. He was most amused, and, perhaps, disappointed to see that it was only an ad for my course.
Flyers put up in the immediate vicinity of the Faculty Office kept on being taken down; not by uptight censors, I hope. The Head of Department, Dr. Nadi Edwards, teasingly chastised me for bringing literature into disrepute. All the same, he was quite pleased that the course didn’t have to be cancelled and conceded that the sexy ad must have been enticing.
Afraid of feminism
In the 1980s when feminism was still a hot topic, that course on fiction written by African, African-American and Caribbean women routinely attracted well over a hundred students. These days, many young women are afraid of feminism. They think that being feminist means they won’t get a man.
But feminism is not about rejecting men. It’s a challenge to patriarchy, that oppressive system which imprisons both men and women in rigidly defined gender roles. And many young men are cautious about studying literature – especially feminist literature – for fear they will be seen as ‘soft’. That’s one of those crippling gender stereotypes: literature is not a ‘manly’ subject.
As it turns out, it wasn’t just my course that was in trouble. For the last five years we’ve seen an ominous decline in course registrations in the Department of Literatures in English. Several factors account for this falling off. For one, tuition fees have gone up. And students are also worried that they won’t get jobs after investing in university education.
On top of that, there’s been a significant reduction in the number of high school students doing literature up to CXC level, even worse, CAPE. So the pool of qualified candidates for tertiary programmes is drying up. I think the Ministry of Education needs to consider making both English language and English literature compulsory subjects for all high school students. They do make a very good pair.
One of the best ways of developing English language skills is to read literature. Stories, poems and plays teach the nuances of a language in a most entertaining way. I have to thank the Jamaica Library Service for the bookmobile that came to my neighbourhood twice per month when I was a teenager. I got four books at a time and read with relish.
Of course, studying literature is not just about learning the mechanics of a language. Literature is an exciting gateway to many worlds – real and imagined. We really shouldn’t have to resort to sex to sell that idea.