Die Bibliothekarin (The Female Librarian)
The librarian at my all-girls’ high school in the British West Indies had locked into a glass cabinet all the books which she found unsuitable for students- romance novels with sex scenes. Only teachers (also all female) were allowed access.
Eleven years after my graduation, I investigate the exact dangers to young female British West Indian minds that these books pose.
Many post-colonial psycho-social problems- for example Frantz Fanon’s “Fact of Blackness” and Chinua Achebe’s “Difference”- stem from male experiences. Combining these phenomena with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s “Madwoman in the Attic” (from Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea), a dialogue can be created between British West Indian women resident in the caribbean and their often more liberated counterparts resident abroad. This possible dialogue was the catalyst of my reading.
Most of the romance novels in this cabinet are in german; the language (my third) allowed me a certain distance from personal encounters with sexuality and body-image, so that I was able to do an objective active reading as the womanist librarian figure which I had become for this work.
Thus it became important to highlight and name the following themes.
Heteronormativity- the assumption that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation
Rape – unwanted advances towards either sex
The ethnic other– the exoticisation or eroticisation of people of colour.
Love-making – consensual sexual activity
All of these themes are warped in the realm of romance, which is why they had to be sorted out. However, their intractability from the genre is symbolised in the traditional illustrations on some of the novels’ covers. There is a notable absence of an embracing couple, (the woman suppliant, the man brutally impassive), delicate flowers (priceless virtue- virginity), castles (implying that love is for those wielding colonial power) on the covers of newer editions. Thus, I steeped the cabinet housing the forbidden romance novels in a romantic landscape; the only ‘universal’ thing about the painted covers in that it is without question unreal.
During the first exhibition of this cabinet, I have chosen to let the first visitor every day ask for the key. The key is left in the lock for the rest of the day, so that each subsequent visitor may also peruse my highlighted works. A chair or a reading corner were not part of the installation in order to preserve the idea of the cabinet being forbidden, and to perhaps highlight the benevolence of the first reader of the day.
f.b. Kiel 2016