I am a “Pure Goan” but there is No Such Thing: An Interview with Peter Nazareth
R. Benedito Ferrão
The College of William and Mary
Abstract. Conducted between February and April, 2017, this e-conversation with writer, literary critic, and professor Peter Nazareth engages him in topics of the Goan diaspora, Goan literature, as well as his own writing and criticism. As a writer of novels, radio plays, and short stories, and as a critic of multiple literatures, Nazareth is asked to reflect upon historical, personal, and other influences on his work, as well as the reception of it. In his responses, Nazareth draws from familial and personal history as a writer whose lived connections include East Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and the West. Additionally, his perspective covers such moments of import as the end of colonialism in East Africa and the Asian expulsion from Idi Amin’s Uganda. He is also asked to comment upon the trajectory of twentieth and twenty-first century Goan literature as an early anthologist of writing by those of Goan origins in various parts of the world. In so doing, Nazareth recalls how he came to the work of writers Leslie de Noronha and Violet Dias Lannoy, the latter an author whose novel was published posthumously. Further, the gamut of issues covered include inter-communal socialities and antagonisms, literature and identity diversity, and the fraught terrain of claims to authenticity.
R. Benedito Ferrão (RBF) –
I thought that for the very first question, I’d like to start with this:
What drew you to writing fiction and the study of literature? My impetus in asking this question is to reflect on the tradition of writing by Goans. Here, you stand in a unique place in that you, both, write fiction in various genres and write about fiction (among other subjects) by others.
Peter Nazareth (PN) – I was the first-born son in the family. My sister Ruth was
born when I was over four years old, and so I was in effect a lone person.
My father had a lot of books in our house, including joke books. He was well known by Goans for giving fine speeches and always including a joke in the speeches. He also liked reading comic books—I think this was the influence of my mother.
So, I grew up reading and liking all kinds of writing.
My father loved writing limericks, so I was used to the notion that I could write all kinds of things. So, from way back I liked writing all kinds of things, and I was also good at editing the work of other students whom I encouraged to write.
In my last year at Kololo Secondary School in Kampala, Ganesh Bagchi— who was a writer of plays, Shavian plays, which he acted in with his wife, who was also a teacher in the Kololo School—made me editor of the second issue of the School magazine, The Kololian. (Kololo School was opened in 1954, and half the students and faculty from the Old Kampala secondary school in Old Kampala were transferred to Kololo School.) Bagchi gave me a free hand. I could make the magazine as thick as I liked. In that issue, I also included my literary criticism, a short story (I think the character was named Ronald), book reviews, etc. I wrote so much that I published some of my work as being “by an editor” (I had roped in other students to be on the editorial board).
So, from way back, I was writing all kinds of things and not considering that one genre of writing was inferior to another. This story is told by me in my essay “The Kololian and S.T. Writerji” in the volume Exodus: Kololian Perspectives, which I co-edited, published by The Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada, 2002.
RBF – You refer to the various influences in your youth as being the motivation for your life path as a writer in multiple genres. On the one hand, you bear witness to the stimuli around you: books in your household, your father’s own diverse reading practices as well as his adeptness at oratory, and also the encouragement you received while at secondary school to participate in writing and editing in an institutional fashion. But, on the other hand, you mention the loneliness of being the first-born and how reading helped you mitigate this. Two related questions arise, then.
The first is how did writing help you develop a sense of interiority, or did writing, in fact, function as a kind of escape for you? Indeed, I am thinking here of the very evident and recurrent theme of exile that appears in your novels and literary criticism.
To follow up, my other question is about origins, as well. As you know, I was drawn to your work because we share a common history—both of us are connected to the Goan British East African Diaspora (GBEAD). Your writing on the subject of this diaspora, as a scholar and fiction-writer, is part of a limited corpus of literature and criticism about the GBEAD by someone who also happens to be a Goan who was born in East Africa during the colonial period. At the risk of labeling you a GBEAD writer—a category that would be self-limiting and inadequate in explaining the range of your oeuvre—what role did this fact of history play in your becoming a writer? To be honest, I am curious about the rarity of such a phenomenon—that of the GBEAD writer. This, given middle-class diasporic predilections for, shall we say, more “productive” lifestyles, as well as the general lack of support for writerly pursuits as the end of the colonial era drew nigh and then in its aftermath, even as these are the very substance of your writing!
PN – I never thought of writing as an escape or of myself as a member of a diaspora. I should add that my father was a civil servant posted to Entebbe and he
remained there until I completed primary school (a Goan primary school) and had
to go to Kampala to a secondary school, in old Kampala to begin with.
I stayed with my aunt Lily, my father’s sister, for four years: she was a nurse
at Nakasero hospital in Kampala.
My father wrote powerful letters, as did my Aunt, so I was used to the notion
that I too could write.
In Kampala, I was befriended by the Gomes family, famous (as my brother John has written) for designing the busuuti, which is the national dress of the women in Buganda. It is also called the Gomisi. A stamp in Uganda was issued of the Gomisi.
The Gomes family consisted of Marcella, also a nurse at Nakesero hospital with my aunt, Julie, Roger, Ella and John. They loved comics: American ones (Captain Marvel) and British ones (Beano among them). They also used to buy a comic-book-styled publication of short stories. They were very generous in sharing their comics with me. A couple of years ago, I signed The General is Up1 for Ella who lives in Toronto. As far as I know, the Gomes family read but did not write.
Two other friends in Kampala, who were equally generous and loaned me their
comics, were Helen and Norman Godinho: Batman, Classics Illustrated, and others.
I never thought of myself as being in a diaspora, as I mentioned above. At Makerere, I wrote as a Makerere student just like the other Makerere students, and I was accepted as one. I was even elected Chairman of Mitchell Hall though there were less than ten Asian students out of 130.
At Leeds and back in Uganda, I wrote as an Ugandan, an East African, and was considered to be an African writer. My photo was on the cover of Afriscope magazine in the early seventies with other African writers (I only knew of this cover from a Nigerian writer, Kole Omotoso, when he was in the International Writing Program).
So, the strangeness for me was to write as a Goan writer. But my father brought me up to believe I had to help Goans any way I could so I took up the challenge because I thought I could bring my experience as an African writer (which led to my reading and writing about Caribbean Literature and Afro- American Literature) to make a contribution to Goan writers. I did not call myself a Goan writer. In fact, I did not include any of my fiction in the JSAL2 issue on Goan literature. The editor in chief, Carlo Coppola, when he received the manuscript, phoned me to ask why I had not included any of my work in it. “Because I am not a Goan writer,” I said. He insisted that I include something of mine, which is why I included an extract from In a Brown Mantle because I had included an essay on that novel by Antonio da Cruz, which he had originally published in The Sunday Navhind Times and my novel could link up with that essay.
RBF – It is so interesting to hear about the early influences on your writing and thinking, as they reveal the complexity of the kind of world you lived in: American and British comic books, British East African multiculturality—both in terms of race
and class, as well as your enrolment at Makere, which in those days was a part of the University of London. If one were to liken coloniality to globalization, then your youthful experience epitomizes the parallels, but it also shows up in your writing.
Could I ask you to reflect on how you deliberately incorporate the visual style
of American and British comic books in your fiction?
Additionally, in keeping with the theme of coloniality as globalization, I also want to enquire about the influence of British and post-British East African multiculturality on your writing.
In a 1988 interview with Charles Irby in the Souvenir Publication of the International Goan Convention, Toronto, you recall your own interview with Ishmael Reed. You quote Reed as saying “that the highest form of multiculturalism is when you look at another culture in order to understand your own . . . So, paradoxically, my Goan identity gets affirmed” (98). Your novels and short stories have a wealth of diverse characters in multiple world locations, and yet the central characters are Goans. Remarkably, even when characters of color interact with one another in the Western locations of your fiction, it is to the near-exclusion of white people. For instance, at the end of The General is Up (1991), Ronald D’Mello, recently exiled from the fictitious, newly independent East African nation of Damibia, encounters in the United States a man who is the son of Lebanese immigrants. Not only is Charlie confused by D’Mello’s use of the word “lift”—a British English expression—when the Goan asks if he can catch a ride (135), but the Lebanese American is also flummoxed as to why a South Asian person should be from Africa
(137). The comedic elements of the conversation are also paired with the comic- bookishness of Charlie’s quintessentially American car—a Ford Thunderbird
(135). The novel closes with the reader discovering that D’Mello has disappeared,
leaving his fictionalized memoir for Charlie to find and possibly make public.
So, while the Goan here is characterized by his multicultural past, it is as if his story cannot be told without the intermediation of someone else who is also the product of multiculturality. With this fascinating interplay as just one example, might I ask you to speak more to the role multiculturalism plays as a device in your work?
PN – One of the best things about me as a literary critic was written by Saadi Simawe, an Iraqi (who had been imprisoned by Saddam Hussein) who came to Iowa, took my class on African literature in 1982, was in the International Writing Program, got his PhD from the American Studies Program, and taught at Grinnell. He passed away three days ago.
I am working on a tribute to him in which I quote from his piece on me.
When it is done, I will send it to you.
My interpretation of the Epilogue is that Ronald leaves his manuscript in the hands of someone who understands the situation and has connections with publishers so he will bring it out while Ronald vanishes. Has he gone to Phoenix? Is this a metaphor for rising out of his ashes? Did he run away and then regret having done so, which is why he wrote the novel, fingering all the guilty people in the last chapter? Is he rising from his ashes through the novel?
Or is he going to rise from his ashes by joining guerillas?
It is fitting that a man going to Phoenix is given a ride by a man driving a Thunderbird. These are both mythic birds, the one from Africa and the other from the US.
There are some indications in the text that “Charlie”—Charlie is the first name of Marlow who tells the story of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—edited the text, perhaps for American reading.
The novel opens with comic book language, and the last chapter is full of
comic book language.
RBF – I was very sorry to hear of the passing of Simawe. Please accept my condolences. In your tribute to him that you kindly shared with me, you echo his assessment of you as a “communal critic” (79). Simawe comes to this conclusion given your own personal history. He observes that you were “[b]orn from three cultures, that is, African, Malayan, and Goan, [and that] this fragmentation becomes for [you] an urge for bridging, which later develops into a high artistic synthesising”
(79). To my mind, in referring to your Goan roots, your East African birth, and your mother’s Malaysian background (though she is of Goan origin), Simawe traces a genealogy of the presence and influence of multiculturalism in your life, as well as on your critical and creative work. Further, it is what he gleans as being part of the insight you bring to your analysis of diverse works of cultural production, be it the poetry of Singaporean poet Edwin Thumboo or the African-set literature of Joseph Conrad.
It is noteworthy that you see Simawe as an apt interlocutor, and here I would like to turn to the late Iraqi writer’s past. Both Simawe and you dealt with tyrannical political dispositions; his entanglement was with Hussein’s Iraq, yours was with Idi Amin’s Uganda. It is likely that Simawe saw similarities between his own experience and that of the characters in your novels. In a 2003 interview with Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge, Simawe is asked if the book he co-edited, Iraqi Poetry Today (2003), bears “testament to a dying culture,” given the US war with Iraq (“Saadi Simawe on ‘Iraqi Poetry Today’”). He responds, “It’s not dying; it’s a culture that’s under siege.” Simawe explains that the volume fills a lacuna by bringing to light the literature of a people whose country is otherwise known to the world only as an embattled region. Your novels, the aforementioned The General is Up and In a Brown Mantle, may be viewed as works addressing a culture under siege. Born of that tumultuous moment in post-independence East African history that led to the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, the novels may still be seen—like Simawe’s work—as lessons for politically unstable times and about the rise of demagoguery. May I ask you to comment on this, but also the place of literature that tells the stories of the ordinary and the marginalized in periods of political strife?
PN – I was brought up in Uganda as a Goan.
It was years later that I realized that my mother’s birth and upbringing in Malaya was important and was overlooked by my considering myself, and being considered, as a Goan with no recognition at all of the Malaysian part.
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Almost all the Goan children in Uganda were brought up with the parents talking to them about Goa. So, when Goans went back to Goa, the children tended to be surprised that they were not considered to be Goans.
In my case, my father talked about the family in Goa and my mother talked about the (large) family in Malaya. My mother’s first trip back to Malaya (Kuala Lumpur, to be precise) was in 1960, twenty-two years after she got married in Goa. My father had gone to Goa on leave from Uganda and a proposal for my mother was brought to him by her uncle in Goa. She was not told she was being taken to Goa to get married. After her wedding she came to Uganda.
I was surprised that my maternal grandfather, who was blind by that time, was so small whereas I had expected a giant. I have drawn from this part of the story in my “Rosie’s Theme.”
I was also surprised that when we got to Malaya, my mother spoke English
with a Malayan accent, like the rest of the family, and not like me.
So, one day, when someone questioned me because he was going to put info about me on Google, I decided to mention the Malaysian ancestry. I was aware that people would confuse race and nationality and decided to throw a spanner in the works. But I felt that my mother’s upbringing until she got married was being erased when she was just considered to be Goan.
I could answer your question by saying I am a “pure Goan” but there is no
Subsequently, the large family of my grandfather brought in through marriage
people of different nationalities.
When I was at Makerere, I wrote as part of the scene, not someone separate from it. My earlier writings had African names or people who were nameless. No one had a Goan name. It was at Leeds, after I had written my third radio play, for the BBC African Theatre, that Ngugi said to me, “It’s time you started writing about Goans.”
He wrote me a letter from Leeds when I was back in Uganda, working for the Ministry of Finance, to remind me of what he had told me and to say, “Write a novel.” But, I did not want to write about Goans as living in a bubble in Africa. And in fact, they were not living in a bubble, although they lived as Goans. So, how was I to write about Goans and yet about Africa and African issues? The answer was to create a character who was Goan and who was a politician. When he confessed the story that obsessed him while living in exile in London, he would be telling the story of Goans and Africans, and others. In fact, the Goan experience of colonialism in Goa could help shed light on what was happening in Africa.
A strong influence on me at that time was David Rubadiri’s novel, No Bride Price. Rubadiri was from Malawi but had spent so much time in Uganda that he was considered to be a Goan. In his novel, the daughter of the Indian high commissioner says that the Africans and Asians (Indians) should be putting their experiences together.
By the way, the head of my department in the Ministry of Finance, when my novel came out, was a Ugandan who was married to an Indian. They were both at the launching of my novel and I have a photo of us together.
When I wrote The General is Up, which was done mainly at the University of Iowa, the Expulsion announced by Amin threw people together. The Institute became a lens through which one could understand what was going on.
I don’t like critics who say that In a Brown Mantle shows how Asians were expelled. I don’t want to be considered to be a poor innocent victim. Deo D’Souza in that first novel tries to find excuses for getting corrupt and running away so he blames his history, etc. At the end, he recognizes that he has been a “bastard” in his behavior and betrayal. So, it is very much an activist novel.
The things I could not say in fiction I said in non-fiction, that is, journalistic
essays and literary criticism.
Incidentally, Saadi could have also included “Indian,” but four would not have the power of three. I should add that I did a lot of work in the Ministry of Finance, at the same time as I was writing In a Brown Mantle. A lot of the work was high powered, although I never met Obote or Amin.
I was sent by the Ministry of Finance on a one-month seminar to Egypt in May/June 1972 on the Role of the Public Sector in the Economic Development of Africa. I apparently did so well I was invited by the UNDP for a six-month seminar in Senegal. But the invitation came at the same time as Amin announced that God had told him in a dream to get rid of Asians because they were dangerous to the economy. So, I told the head of my department I could not accept the invitation and leave my family alone. He understood.
I learned a lot from Ngugi, and he says he learned a lot from me. He always
stressed the past as a key to the present and the future.
You may be interested to know that the end-epilogue I use in the later two editions of The General is Up was uttered by the Egyptian critic Ali Shalash, when he and his wife were having lunch at our home, in reference to Saddam Hussein, whom he saw in Egypt before Saddam assumed power in Iraq. I got up from the table and wrote it as an end epilogue to my novel, which was ready for submission to TSAR books in Toronto.
RBF – “I am a ‘pure Goan’ but there is no such thing” – this compelling statement reminds me of the opening line in Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia where Karim Amir introduces himself as “an Englishman born and bred, almost” (3). Both these self-assessments query authenticity, while yours also reverberates with the theme this special issue of the journal takes up: “Goans on the Move.”
Questions of identity and displacement show up in your writing as a matter of course. In The General is Up, Ronald D’Mello recalls his time in Goa, which he goes to for the first time as a secondary school student. “[T]here was nothing inherently middle-class about Goans” (16), the character discovers. “Just like Damibians, Goans could be servants, bus-drivers, peasants, as well as the occasional landowner” (16).