Peter Nazareth, the father of the first-ever anthology in English of Goan writing published in the 1980s, is Professor of English and Advisor to the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Born in Uganda of Goan parentage, he obtained his honours degree in English from Makerere University College.
Last week, the third edition of his novel ‘The General Is Up’ was released at Des Moines, Iowa, US. This Goan writer with strong links to Africa, North America and ancestral links to Far East Asia, gives FREDERICK NORONHA an insight into his writing, his perspectives and the responses this book drew. Incidentally, The General Is Up is set in an imaginary African country, where a General comes to power and decides to expel Asians from that country…. Not surprisingly, the setting is the Goan community there.
Please describe the novels you wrote. Of these, which is your favourite?
I like both the novels (The General Is Up and the earlier In a Brown Mantle, 1977, East African Literature Bureau). They are connected, but different from one another.
What motivated you to write The General Is Up?
I had started writing something before leaving Uganda, after the first novel was out; but then I left Uganda to accept the Seymour Lustman Fellowship at Yale and I abandoned what I wrote. Again, I started writing something at Yale, but abandoned it. I started writing something when I came to (the University of) Iowa, but abandoned it too.
Then I received a request from the editor of Dhana (the journal of creative writing) in Kampala (the late Professor of Creative Writing at the Makerere University in Uganda) Austin Ejiet, asking me to write something for the journal. I found that abandoned piece and sent it to him and he published it, saying that it was remarkable and he hoped I would continue.
What have been the responses to the novel so far?
Jose Antonio Bravo, novelist from Peru, told me that what I had telling him about Idi Amin led to his having nightmares and he wanted to write about it. But, he said, it was my story and I should write it and if I did not know how to do it I should buy Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and I would know.
I did buy it and read it but I felt like writing about his novel and this became my second book of literary criticism.
The following year, Cyprian Ekwensi, the Nigerian novelist (who began writing novels before Chinua Achebe) suddenly said to me, “My god! You have the novel in your head! Write it!”
I told him that that was just what Bravo had said to me and I found that Bravo planned his novels like an architect and when it was ready, he wrote it. “Good,” said Ekwensi. “Let me show you how I do it.” And he took me to his room and I found he did it the same way, planning it like an architect.
So I went to a bookstore downtown and bought paper and began planning the novel: and at a certain point, the novel took off and I wrote it in a kind of trance, except that it swallowed up all the other pieces I had written and abandoned.
All I had to do after that was fine tune the novel. Ekwensi read it and made some suggestions, particularly about how to make it a novel instead of something based completely on real life. I have kept on fine tuning it (just as the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o has kept on fine tuning his third novel, ‘A Grain of Wheat’).
Who do you think appreciated it the most? Why?
There are some African novelists who have loved both novels. One of them was Uche Chukwumerije, who visited Goa. He loved the treatment of the General in my novel and the humour of the novel. So much so that he began writing a novel in which he mentioned and analyzed my novel. He sent me what he wrote.
What were the difficulties to publish it initially?
The difficulty in publishing ‘The General is Up’ initially is that publishers and readers in the West, including the US, do not want their readers to know what is going on in the Third World which they are responsible for. My novel pinpoints everyone and every person who is responsible for what happened regarding the General, his coming into power, and his Expulsion.
From the beginning, I have liked writing all kinds of things: plays, literary criticism, fiction. I write my literary criticism as though I am writing fiction, that is, I mix everything up. In fact, I write more literary criticism because literary criticism is about who had the power to control how fiction in the Third World is interpreted. Of course, publishers and readers in the West do not tell you the truth: they say your work is not up to the standard.
On the positive side: I was urged by Ayi Kwei Armah (the Ghanaian writer) whom I met in Dar es Salaam in 1970 when I had the manuscript of ‘In a Brown Mantle’ with me, to get my novel published by a local publisher. The East African Literature Bureau was very interested and Armah told me to go ahead with EALB. He was telling me this after he had two novels published in the US by Houghton Mifflin, a big publisher, and his novels were praised by reviewers in Newsweek, Time and The New York Times. He was completing his third novel at the time, after which he was turning to write his fourth and fifth novel and get them published with a local publisher (East African Publishing House). He now lives in Senegal in West Africa, and has set up his own publishing firm and publishes his own novels among other things.
Sketch of Peter Nazareth by Steve Gronert Ellerhoff