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Peter Nazareth

Peter Nazareth (born April 27, 1940), a major critic and writer, was born in Uganda of Goan and Malaysian decent. He is currently professor of English and African-American World Studies at the University of Iowa, where he is also acts as a advisor to the International Writing Program.

Early Life

From an early age, Nazareth’s family encouraged his involvement with writing and music. Nazareth states, “In my house there was no distinction between high and low culture for which I am really thankful, because I read everything.” As a result, Nazareth read everything from British comics to women’s magazines.

His family also played a significant part in Nazareth’s involvement with music. Nazareth’s maternal grandfather had a love for music that influenced him from a young age. As a famous violinist player in Goa, Nazareth’s grandfather influenced him to play the harmonica and clarinet. His grandfather gave him his first instrument, a violin. Nazareth’s mother purchased his first record player and they shared a similar passion for Elvis Presley’s music.

Nazareth attended Makarere College and received his B.A. in English Literature in 1962.  Following graduation, Nazareth attended Leeds University in London and received his post-graduate diploma in 1965, also in the field of English Literature. At the conclusion of his time at Leeds, he returned to Entebbe, Uganda to raise and support his family.

While working for the Ministry of Finance in Uganda, Nazareth became involved in writing letters, reports, and government-based writing. Nazareth’s multicultural background provided him with some unique opportunities while in the Ministry of Finance. One example of this, Nazareth was specifically selected to report on a Soviet spinning mill project in Uganda because he could not be accused of being tribally biased.  Nazareth became very proficient at his job, enjoying the experiences and exposure his position granted him. These types of jobs also provided Nazareth more knowledge about Goans, the primary employees working within the Civil Service.

Citizen of the World

After Nazareth worked for several years in the Ministry of Finance, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin came into power through a military coup. Nazareth’s citizenship was revoked shortly thereafter. Nazareth suggests Amin never specifically threatened him, but regardless, he remained stateless for a brief period. During this period, Amin also announced the expulsion of Goans from Uganda, which occurred shortly after the publication of Nazareth’s first novel, In a Brown Mantle.

Surprisingly, one of the characters in In a Brown Mantle has a dream about an expulsion, despite the book being written before these events took place in real life in Uganda.  This was actually one of Nazareth’s dreams, which inspired him to incorporate it into his novel. In Adventures in International Writing, he writes "A few days later ldi Amin announced the expulsion of Asians -- fictionally prophesied in my novel. Some people said Amin must have read the novel (though he did not read). The work also prophesied the coup-albeit fictionally, as a warning -- but unfortunately the coup took place while the manuscript was with the publisher."

In a Brown Mantle was the reason Nazareth came to the United States. The novel follows a Goan politician who has betrayed his colleague, who is on the verge of suicide. After seeing a newspaper article about this suicide, the protagonist of the story is driven to make amends. The character tries to confess his sin, but, being Catholic, the sin seems to follow him. This novel provided Nazareth the opportunity he needed to escape the malicious Amin dictatorship. After the completion of In A Brown Mantle, Elliot Lehman, a friend from Skokie, Illinois, brought Nazareth’s novel to Yale University. The administration at Yale quickly saw Nazareth and granted him a fellowship to Yale in 1973.

Upon arriving at Yale, Nazareth met Charles Davis, who had just come from Iowa City:" 'Iowa City is the place for you' said a man I bumped into on the streets of New Haven. This was confirmed by Charles Davis, chair of Afro-American Studies, who had come from Iowa City the year before and who, unbeknownst to me, had read my novel and recommended me for the Lustman Fellowship. Davis wrote to Paul Engle who invited me to come to the International Writing Program in the fall of 1973."[fn]Adventures in International Writing[/fn]  Davis lauded Iowa City’s vast writing culture and spoke with Paul Engle, the founder of the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa, to set up the logistics for Nazareth's move to Iowa City. Despite Davis’ persuasion, Nazareth still thought he would one day return to Uganda after the fall of Idi Amin. 

In August 1973, Nazareth moved to Iowa City with his wife and two daughters. When they first arrived, they lived in the Mayflower dormitory, referred to in Nazareth's Path of Thunder: "Since my family and I were living in the Mayflower Apartments, where the writers stayed when the IWP was in session, the Engles asked Mary and me to work for the IWP, I as Advisor to the writers and Mary as Assistant..." After joining the International Writers’ Workshop, Nazareth began to realize he had all the necessary tools in front of him to grow as a writer. Nazareth and his wife enjoyed Iowa City, but they realized they were only interacting with writers. The Nazareths quickly became aware that a vast area of farmland that surrounded them, so they wanted to meet local farmers.

In early 1974, John and Allie Dane became the host family for the Nazareths. They helped to expose the Nazareths to a different culture and lifestyle and formed a friendship that is still strong today. 

The General is Up

Nazareth wrote his second novel, The General is Up, in the 1980's. Similar to his first novel, The General is Up depicts a corrupt army coming to power in East Africa. The novel closely reflects Idi Amin’s Ugandan dictatorship, but Nazareth explicitly states in the preface of the book, “Any resemblance to real events person or countries is an unfortunate coincidence.” Nazareth later suggested this was an effort to avoid unwanted attention from authorities upon the release of the novel.

Although writing has played a significant role in Nazareth’s life, his time in Iowa City stretches beyond his literary career. Nazareth has become a renowned professor at The University of Iowa, teaching in the English Department and the African American Studies department. His first course was taught on African Literature, and the English department gave Nazareth freedom to design the course.

Nazareth tries to constantly restructure and evolve his teaching, “I don’t want to be saying and teaching things the same way I was 2 years ago, I’m always moving on.” Nazareth believes changing the material and keeping classes fresh are the major reason why students appreciate what he does.

Elvis As Anthology

For many years, Nazareth taught a class at the University of Iowa called “Elvis As Anthology,” which won national recognition when he was first teaching the course in 1992.  Nazareth was to have taught it in Spring 2013, but instead has used the break to write what is being published as an e-book, "ELVIS: Changing the World Through Multicultural Movies."  The publisher is Goa 1556, which has also published his first e-book, "Re-Membering Singapore."

Despite his expertise on Elvis Presley now, Nazareth disliked the first song he ever heard by Elvis: “Love Me Tender.” Nazareth purchased an Elvis record at the age of seventeen and increasingly began to like it and understand it after listening to the album several times. On a trip to Boston to visit his daughter, Nazareth came across a record of Chuck Willis. He played both Chuck Willis and Presley’s records and realized they sounded almost identical. Nazareth shared his ideas about this interpretation with Jonathan Walton, who insisted he teach a class on this comparison.

At first, Nazareth did not want to teach such a course; however, after Walton’s sudden death that summer, he reconsidered. Nazareth’s class soon became a global phenomenon due to all the publicity it received. Chris Bury of ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings said in a 1992 news story:  “At the core of the class is the professor’s theory of Elvis as a kind of musical sponge who soaked up influences from everyone he heard, from Big Mama Thornton, the blues singer, to Mario Lanza, the Italian tenor.”  

Nazareth began to use the footage filmed by the World News Tonight crews in his course, encouraging students to analyze the videos. Nazareth says that he began to admire the way the news crew could take his course to a higher level in such a brief time. He is still teaching this class to this day as a result of demand by the student body. A former student, Steve Ellerhoff, describes his teaching abilities in an article about Nazareth:

“It's hard to cook down his genius to a single skill or trait,” Ellerhoff said.

“I could say it's his embodiment of the trickster, but he might be upset with me for giving him away…I could say it's his ability to listen like no one else I know, but I really think my own favorite aspect of the man is that he's answered the call to help his students identify their own individual genius and then give it voice.”

Influences of Iowa City

Peter Nazareth's influences continue to grow as years pass. Among many, Ishmael Reed influenced Nazareth, especially in the writing of his novel The General Is Up. He strongly admires writer Edwin Thumboo, as well as Paul Engle for creating the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and creating a space for Nazareth to grow.  He was equally inspired by Cyprian Ekwensi: "Let me show you how I do it." He showed me: he too planned his novels on charts like an architect! This was too much, I thought. I went to Iowa Book and Supply, bought some large sheets of paper, came back to my apartment and started planning my novel the way Bravo and Ekwensi did."

In addition, Nazareth has a deep admiration for Christopher Merrill, a colleague of Nazareth's at the International Writing Program, for "always appreciating the creativity in people." Through the International Writing Program, Nazareth has had the opportunity to work closely with writers from around the world. In an article by student Emily Woodbury, Nazareth describes how all of these influences affect him: "I draw from my life story in order to interpret other people’s writing. This way I can endlessly write my life story because it’s different every time."

Nazareth has stayed in Iowa because of how things grow; "There is always time in Iowa," he claims. Nazareth explains that the strong sense of community in Iowa City; it allows for him to continue expanding his knowledge and makes him feel like he is a part of something bigger than himself. He believes that Iowa City is the reason for his ability to continue growing. He enjoys being involved in many activities -- whether it’s viewing a theatrical production at Hancher Auditorium, or having a drink with friends at the Deadwood Tavern in downtown Iowa City. He enjoys the small town sense of community that Iowa City offers and has stated that can’t imagine himself anywhere else.

Currently, Nazareth is continuing his career as a professor at The University of Iowa. He likes to “mix things up.” In a 2011 interview he stated, “ If I have to write in one category, I’ll make sure to bring in something from somewhere else.” As an effort to try and move away from the traditional forms of literary criticism and fiction that he writes, Nazareth hopes to transition into writing literary criticism that incorporates fiction.  

Uganda