On July 1, Peter Nazareth, a writer, professor and critic, ended his teaching career of nearly five decades at the University of Iowa. Despite having spent the bulk of his life as an educator, Nazareth had also worked as a bureaucrat in Uganda, where he was born to Goan parents in 1940.
His experience in the Idi Amin administration in the early-1970s led to him writing the novel, In a Brown Mantle (1972), which prophesied the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. In part, this led to Nazareth’s own departure from his birth country.
While he was a college student at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, Nazareth met Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who became a lifelong friend. Before he departed from Uganda with his family, Nazareth obtained a graduate degree at Leeds University. However, it was not England to which the Nazareth family would migrate but the United States.
In 1973, Peter Nazareth accepted the Seymour Lustman Fellowship at Yale University, after which he was a Fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He went on to become a professor there, Chair of African American World Studies in 1991-1992, and advisor to the International Writing Program.
As a littérateur who crosses the boundaries between fiction-writing and writing about fiction, the breadth of Nazareth’s legacy is as varied as the continents he has lived in. Apart from writing his own novels and short stories that are a record of the Goan diasporic experience in East Africa, he was one of the first to anthologise literature by Goans from around the world.
In this interview, Nazareth reflects on his life experiences and work, his critics, other authors, and also what the future might hold.
“You [ask] whether I ever met [Idi] Amin. I did. The scene in The General is Up where Ronald has his back to the wall while he hears the General give a scary speech while launching a new development bank was based on my experience: I had my back to the wall...”
“I once went for a drive with my wife and daughters in Entebbe and as we turned around a corner, I found myself looking into Amin’s face and he into mine...”
“I used to have two nightmares about Amin. One, that he discovered that I had written a novel based on him ... The other was that he would make me an ambassador to another country, which was [the] first step to being killed.”
These are quotes from your response to an August 2020 query from Jeanne Hromnik, a South Africa-based Goan writer, who asked on a listserv called The Goa Book Club about the relationship between your time in Uganda’s finance ministry, under the Idi Amin administration in the 1970s, and your novels. In a Brown Mantle (1972) foretold the expulsion of South Asians from Uganda in the same year as its publication while The General is Up (1984) looks back on those events. Neither of the novels name Amin nor Uganda; instead, the action unfolds in the fictitious country of Damibia and, as the title of the second novel intimates, the General stands in for Amin.
I can only imagine how traumatic it must be to dredge up these memories. I am so sorry that you and your family had to deal with this.
Things were not always scary.
Soon after Amin’s coup, I was chairman of the parent-teacher association of the school my two daughters went to. We were opening a new building. This was to be followed by a dance.
We decided to invite [freedom fighter] Abu Mayanja to open the new building. Then there was to be a barbeque followed by the dance. Who were we to invite as the guest of honour for that part?
We decided to invite Amin’s wives. There were four [at the time]. Two accepted: Mama Malyamu and Kay.
Abu Mayanja was a powerful Muganda politician. He was imprisoned by Milton Obote and he was released when Amin came into power. I had to give a speech to introduce him. I was in a tight spot because I admired his courage but I despised his politics.
I think I gave the most skilful speech of my life. Abu Mayanja was so impressed by it, he squeezed my hand.
Then came the barbeque. We were running a little late and, exactly at that time, a young army man arrived with the wives of Amin and another woman who was painted and sat right through the barbeque glaring at Amin’s two wives. I discovered when I got to Iowa and read a magazine that she was Amin’s mother and she was a witch.
My wife [Mary Nazareth] asked a friend to give her a ride home with our two daughters, Kathy and Monique.
The young officer who brought the wives and mother and I talked. I discovered he believed in fighting every week or he would go soft. I told him I had tried to get the army band for the dance but could not get them so I had to settle for the police band.
“Next time you want the army band, tell me,” he said. “I will get them for you.”
I was to discover he was the biggest killer in Uganda. He was called Major Maliyamungu, which means something like “God’s affair.”
Anyway, I had to dance with the guests of honour. I danced with Mama Malyamu and then with Kay.
You will see in the movie The Last King of Scotland that, much later, Kay was killed and dismembered but her body was sewn together and Amin gave a lesson about what happened to people like her.
This is quite a moment that you recall! A dance sounds like the appropriate metaphor to conjure up in explaining how one might manoeuvre between happier events and tense political episodes.
When you watch something like The Last King of Scotland, how much do such fictionalisations recall the past for you and at what point do such productions feel like they do not do the past justice at all? Regardless, it must also feel traumatic at times to see or read about that era.
What you mentioned is very real to me so it is not really from the past.
I may or may not have mentioned that there is a Ugandan, John Otim, who has been communicating with me about a novel he has been writing (and it is nearly ready for publication) called Strongman. It draws a lot from my novels but at the same time is different from my novels in style, rhythms, angles towards the Amin figure, music (it draws from the Beatles, Cliff Richard, and other singers), space (it flies over Africa).
He says that two Ugandans who have read it are not happy that he has not presented Amin as a complete monster, but what he has done works, and I pointed out to him that some people who met Amin said he was very charming. All I can say is that it works.
And it tears apart the movie The Last King of Scotland.
I have not met Otim but he studied in Makerere, and later in the United States, and then taught at a University in Nigeria, and now is jobless in his hometown Lira in Uganda because of coronavirus.
I know Lira for two reasons. When I was young, my father decided to drive us around towns in Uganda in his Ford Consul and one of the towns we went through was Lira.
Second, soon after the coup, Amin was trying to stop all Obote projects and all projects in Obote’s hometown, which was Lira. The head of my department in Uganda’s finance ministry, Anthony Ocaya, persuaded the government to send someone who would not be accused of being tribally biased, and they decided to send me.
The project was the construction of a sugar mill financed by the Soviet Union. By the time it was functioning, I was not in the country.
The feeling of the present-ness of the past, as you experienced it, makes sense in how it continues to be an integral part of who you are and were. From that perspective, it also seems apt that you would be in correspondence with contemporary writers who delve into East Africa’s history.
I never asked you how you came to be a part of Uganda’s finance ministry! I would love to learn more about this.
When I came back from [graduate studies at] Leeds with my wife and daughter, I applied for a position at Makerere [University]. I was turned down. I tried to fight my case, but I did not succeed.
It was late in the year and the only job I could get was in the government as my hometown of Entebbe was essentially a government town. I was interviewed by an English officer in Uganda’s public service ministry who then posted me to the finance ministry temporarily until they found a more suitable place for me.
As it turns out, the secretary to the treasury was a powerful man who got to like me and kept me in the ministry. I liked the ministry too because I did all kinds of important things and kept on improvising.
I had to do a short study in law and take an exam, which I passed. And I was promoted to senior finance officer in the ministry.
I developed my writing skills.
The ministry had its hand in many other organisations. I had time to read books when I was not busy.
Towards the end of my Leeds experience, I thought I had been miseducated all my life (due to colonialism) and would have to re-educate myself. The finance ministry was just the place. It took me three years to do a basic re-education. I heard a bang in my head that told me I was ready.
At the same time, I got very involved with the Entebbe Goan Institute and became President three times. This part of the story is told in The General is Up.
You might say I had a different kind of life in the ministry. In addition to my novel, I also wrote a book of literary criticism. Clerks and secretaries typed my manuscripts. I gave them credit in both books by name since they worked gratis.
In reply to Jeanne Hromnik’s question [on the Goa Book Club listserv] about why you chose to fictionalise certain elements of your novels, you state: “I was working in the Ministry of Finance in Uganda. We had to take an oath not to give away secrets. I decided to write a novel set in a country called Damibia so I could not be accused of writing about Uganda and making it possible I would end up in prison.”
By the time you were at Yale, In a Brown Mantle had already been published and not long thereafter, the expulsion of Asians from Uganda was underway.
Did you decide not to return to Uganda because of the recurring nightmare you used to have of Amin discovering your novel?
Also, while your immediate family was with you, did you still have other members of the family in Uganda and were you concerned for their safety?
Outsiders do not understand the complexities of Uganda.
Although my citizenship was taken away [by one person], another person gave me a newly printed certificate that permitted me to stay in Uganda and continue working in the finance ministry. My wife and two children were also given that certificate so I could stay on.
The head of my department in the finance ministry at that time was Anthony Ocaya. He was an Acoli, a different tribe from Amin.
He told me to stay on. But things changed after a few weeks and he talked to me and told me to leave the country because he was going to leave three weeks after I left to work in the United States because he was tired of dodging assassins. He said we would meet in Washington.
I stayed at his place on my way from Yale to a conference in Kansas City. I had wanted to stay on in Uganda but my friend Joje Waddimba sat me in his car and talked me into leaving for the sake of my wife and children. He said he would come to the airport to say goodbye.
I took leave for a few weeks so I could depart. This was to make sure I would not be stopped from leaving. Officially, I was supposed to return to Uganda after the Seymour Lustman Fellowship was over. But my fellowship had two more months to go.
I received a letter from a junior officer in the finance ministry saying my leave was over and when was I coming back? I replied that my fellowship was not over but my permission to return from immigration did not cover those two months so I could not come back. The letter from the junior officer said that he consulted the Standing Orders and found that I was considered to have abandoned my position. He thanked me for my seven years of devoted service.
I had not intended to return but I wanted to keep all my options open.
From Yale, I was invited by Iowa to join the International Writing Program and to teach in African American Studies.
My sister, Ruth, left Uganda for England and then Canada a few weeks after I left. My brother-in-law Cyril left for Canada a few weeks later. Cyril died suddenly in Toronto.
My brother John, seven years younger than me, obtained a degree in Makerere (Maths Honors) and started working in the Ministry of Planning in Entebbe. He could not stand the irrationality of the government and he applied to the University of London to be accepted for further studies. He was accepted and left for London.
David, my other brother who is two years younger than John, had his citizenship confirmed and did not have to leave. But his girlfriend Lydia had all her documents stolen and had to leave. And so David left. The first message I got from him was he was getting married and he asked for my blessings.
My brothers wound up in Canada. John found a way to argue with the British in Ottawa that David deserved British citizenship (prior to becoming a Canadian) because our late father had an MBE and British citizenship. My brothers’ children were born in Canada.
I had a younger brother, Rex, who died years ago in Bombay when my parents took him and David there with them on holiday.
Because of your time at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, you have been able to interact with several writers, in a sense allowing you to remain connected with East Africa even after your exit from Uganda.
For instance, you were asked by Heinemann in America to evaluate the manuscript that would become Kenya-born writer MG Vassanji’s first novel – The Gunny Sack (1989). Vassanji was then invited to International Writing Program. While he was there, you arranged a local launch of his book and you have also taught his work in your courses.
What are your thoughts on Vassanji’s use of literature to look back at the South Asian community in East Africa during British colonial rule and after?
Coincidentally, both The Gunny Sack and The Book of Secrets (1994) have Goan characters in them. But, as Clifford Fernandes notes in his 2017 essay The Fallacy of Vassanji’s Goans, the author often misrepresents Goan legacies, and especially in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003). Of the novel’s pivotal setting in 1950s’ Nakuru, a racially diverse region of Kenya where the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebels are being retaliated against by the British, Fernandes finds it curious that there is only one mention of a Goan character.
In his estimation, “[f]or much of the book, Goans disappear from the colourful and dramatic world of Vikram Lall, as if they were never there in East Africa”. Fernandes’ purpose, as I see it, is to argue for a truer representation of diversity in Africa even as Goans were [and are] minorities in the region.
In his historical fiction, is Vassanji appropriative at the same time as he is dismissive of the Goan presence in British colonial East Africa?
Moyez Vassanji and I had a close relationship when he and his wife, Nurjehan Aziz, edited several journals and introduced me to many African writers. I do not think he knew I had written a favourable review of his first novel for Heinemann.
I do not think he really understood my novel In a Brown Mantle since he was not from Uganda. Vassanji is not a good literary critic. He said in a review of my first novel [in And Home was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa (2014)] that I expected my narrator [Deogratius (or Deo) D’Souza] to be an idealist when in fact the character was corrupt. I thought this was obvious.
The word “bastard” in the last line of my novel [“‘Goodbye, Mother Africa,’ I said, as the plane lifted off. ‘Your bastard son loved you.’”] has a double meaning. In the end, by going through the story of all the confessor figures who haunt him including Pius Cota, [Deo] recognises his sins.
I think Vassanji felt guilty when he took ideas from other writers to stimulate his own writing, not realising there is room for many writers. I was initially upset by the fact that he used the same epigraph from TS Eliot in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall as I did for In a Brown Mantle.
From In a Brown Mantle:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?— TS Eliot’s ‘What the Thunder Said’ from ‘The Waste Land’.
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle
I taught The In-Between World of Vikram Lall only once.
Well, one cannot miss that other coincidence between The General is Up and Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets – both have crucial Goan characters named Pius. Your Pius Cota, however, appears a decade before Vassanji’s Pius Fernandes. Makes one wonder.
A sensitive subject, now. Some have accorded other meanings to your use of the moniker Pius, seeing in it a similarity with the name of Pio Gama Pinto, a Goan journalist and anti-colonial activist who became independent Kenya’s first political martyr. But is not it the case that In a Brown Mantle has also been (allegorically) connected to Pinto?
Pio Gama Pinto was assassinated while I was still at Leeds (with my wife and daughter). Malcolm X had stayed with Pio on a visit to Kenya. He was assassinated just before Pio [both in 1965 and three days apart].
I knew by intuition that Pio was next.
When I started writing my novel, I had Pio in mind but I had never met him. I called the character Pius because that was a saint-like name. Cota was a solid name like a rock. In contrast to the novel’s narrator.
Pio’s brother, Rosario, read my novel, assumed the character was Pio and threatened to sue me in England because the character was not like Pio, and if I knew his brother, I would not have said what I did.
When I mentioned this at a Goan conference in Toronto, I received a message from Pio’s widow [Emma Gama Pinto] telling me to forget about Rosario.
As a writer, I have received most of my criticism from Goans.
After Leeds and Iowa, did you ever return to Uganda for a visit?
I did not return to Uganda for a visit. My writing went back. There was much more writing than there would have been if I went back.
You and Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o have been friends for several decades now, even finding yourselves in the same countries on three continents – Africa, Europe and North America. Was the University of Makerere where you first met? In your 2018 interview with me for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Portuguese Diaspora Studies, you told me that it was Ngũgĩ who advised you to “[start] writing about Goans,” and you did so in your fiction while also portraying them within the colonial multiculturality of East Africa. Conversely, would it also be right to say that you have influenced his work?
Ngũgĩ gives me high praise in his 2016 non-fiction book Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening. When I thanked him, he said the book would not have been written without me.
I was two years ahead of him at Makerere. Ngũgĩ told me I was lucky, on my return to Uganda, to be working in the finance ministry because teaching at university took up most of the energy that would otherwise go into writing.
Also back in our previous interview, you had told me how your call for a 1983 special issue of Journal of South Asian Literature, that would focus on Goan writing [republished as Pivoting on the Point of Return: Modern Goan Literature (2010)], put you in touch with Richard Lannoy. He corresponded with you, sharing the unpublished writing of his late spouse, Mozambique-born Goan Violet Dias Lannoy. Later, this would lead to the posthumous publication of her novel, Pears from the Willow Tree. You have mentioned to me that you had met Richard in England following your correspondence with him. Could you tell me more about this and his memories of Violet?
It was the summer of 1992. We had gone to England for a celebration of Andrew Salkey. Richard Lannoy invited us to his place at Bath.
I taped an interview with Richard. He told me that Violet had met the man who became her first husband [Behram Warden], a Parsi, at a Gandhian camp [in India].
[Behram’s] father refused to let them get married. He told all the chemists in Bombay not to give his son the required medicine to deal with his asthma.
The next time he had an attack of asthma, he died.
After Violet died, Richard took care of her papers. He discovered a lot of papers in which she had written in a garbled way to her dead husband.
Richard could not read the papers but he knew she did not love him. He burst into tears.
I took the interview tapes with me and handed them to someone who transcribed most of my tapes –but she vanished without a trace.
This is a rather unfortunate set of events. Perhaps the lasting legacy of your interaction with Richard Lannoy is that Violet’s novel was published – something she was unable to achieve during her lifetime despite many efforts.
You retired on July 1, right? How many years of service did you complete at the University of Iowa and what are you looking forward to doing now that your time is all your own?
I started teaching when I got to Iowa in August 1973 and I did not receive a break (or vacation) until I retired this month. Work got more intense in the Spring 2021 semester: I taught three classes on Zoom, one or two classes every day except for the weekend – and then I had to read and grade essays.
I did not enter my office for a year and a half and then I entered it with my wife to clear out the office and also give away some books.
I do not know what I will do next. What I know from past experience is that things will turn up.
R Benedito Ferrão is an Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at The College of William and Mary, Virginia, United States.