Peter Nazareth's book, Literature and Society in Modern Africa, became one of the strongest statements on the East African literary scene on the dire alienation that has gripped the East African society and went ahead to advocate commitment as a redress to that alienation. The book stood in a dialectically opposite poise against the works by Taban Lo Liyong and Ali A Mazrui, especially The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, which sought to portray the individual as too important to be in service of the society. According to Peter Nazareth's theoretical framework, writings by Taban Lo Liyong, Okot p'Bitek, Charles Mangua, and David G Maillu do not add up as a revolutionary programme towards freedom in East Africa. In Peter Nazareth's construct we see writers who pursue their own self -fulfillment in literature, and totally refuse to be of service to the people who have sacrificed so much to prop up their existence.
Peter Nazareth portrayed Ali A Mazrui in 'The Trial of a Juggler' for the Journal of East African Literature and Society(JOLISO), and commented on Ime Ikiddeh's play, 'A Kind of Churchillness,' in Transition 19,2-1965. He operated in the socialist realist mode to unravel Mazrui's poverty in literary thought and imagery and pointed at the insipid words, sentences and paragraphs in Mazrui's novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. Nazareth showed how Mazrui's novel was littered with the 'use of stilted language and use of clichés,' and demonstrated how Mazrui often used 'nyktomorphic words,' or 'vague words in the hope that the reader will fill in the blanks out of his own imagination and experience.' From Nazareth's portraiture, Mazrui is a lame duck which props itself up by the support from strong well-known writers and thinkers in such a way that, left on their own, Mazrui's writings would have 'nothing of value'.
Ironically, however, Peter Nazareth is more mild on the writings of his Nigerian colleague, whom, in spite of having 'no overt message,' is rated as committed because of the humour in it. Ikiddeh's play was written and produced at the University of Leeds. There was nothing in that play to show that Ime Ikiddeh was an African writer. Its setting was alien, and its point of view skewed.
Peter Nazareth was Ngugi wa Thiong'o's contemporary at Makerere University College and his background has a lot to say about his critical perspectives. He was born in Uganda on 27 April, 1940 of Goan parents of Malaysian ancestry in a closed and privileged society with cultivated bourgeois values, a background which brought forth his novel, In a Brown Novel. Like many writers and critics of his generation, Nazareth was a Roman Catholic and he has to unlearn some of the values that informed his perspectives to become the more cosmopolitan and enlightened critic of which he is now an integral part.
Nazareth's upbringing compares unfavourably with that of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a son of a peasant mother whose background has been crafted in his autobiography, Dreams at a Time of War. Ngugi wa Thiong'o grew up in poverty, exploitation and land alienation, and, on going to mission schools, imbibed values from his Christian education, whose vestiges he was later to renounce.
The literary values of the two literary figures, however, coalesced in a remarkable way, as they studied English at post-graduate levels at the feet of the socialist literary critic, Arnold Kettle, and, together, discovered the writings of Karl Marx, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Jean- Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon of The Wretched of the Earth fame.
Indeed the whole batch of East African writers and literary critics who graduated from the University of Leeds in the 1960s : Peter Nazareth, Pio and Elvania Zirimu, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Grant Kamenju and their West African counterparts - Ghanaian , and Nigerian counterparts, Jawa Apronti and Ime Ikiddeh, respectively formed a formidable team. Ime Ikiddeh, Pio Zirimu, Peter Nazareth and Grant Kamenju were literary critics whilst Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Elvania Zirimu were the creative writers. Peter Nazareth and Ime Ikiddeh were so close to Ngugi wa Thiong'o that whatever criticism they wrote on Ngugi's works were tinged biographical observations. They grew up as intellectuals in the mid-sixties when the continent of Africa was being decolonized. As Ime Ikiddeh was to observe later: 'The place was Leeds and the period was the eventful years leading into the mid-sixties when many African countries were regaining their freedoms. But they were also years of interminable crises. The headlines included the murderous betrayal in the Congo, Ian Smith's rebellion in Zimbabwe, the overthrow of the Kabaka in Uganda, and the military intervention in Nigeria and Ghana, all in a continent still smarting with bullets of Sharpville.'
The bulk of Peter Nazareth's essays during this period were selected for their consistent address to social issues. They were published in volumes like Literature and Society in Modern Africa (1972), Peter Nazareth ventured into what George A Heron was later to call, 'socialist literary criticism'. His literary criticism can be divided into three phases: at the Makerere days when he was fascinated by English literature, the period of the University of Leeds and the return when he and other writers argued for commitment in their writing, and the post-Amin period when he found himself an exile seeking to anchor his works in a new world. He became increasingly aware of the social function of literature, and the need for the African writer to be committed. His stand became very clear in his article entitled 'The African Writer and Commitment,' which he wrote from the Post-Graduate Division of the School of English at the University of Leeds in England.
This thinking and that of his contemporaries set the pace for post-colonial discourse on African literature where writers and literary critics exposed colonialism and exploitation in all their changing manifestations. As a literary critic he saw those who write art for art's sake as uncommitted writers whilst those who dealt with urgent issues facing their societies as committed writers. During the period of his advocacy for the writer's commitment, he addressed the themes of alienation that the writer was to deal with, namely, the exploitation and loss of human values - weighing African socialism and socialist commitment as antidotes to alienation. According to Nazareth's analysis, capitalism is the wrong system for the new societies. African societies had good social organization whose quality was to be carried to the present reality. His vision for the African writer in independent Africa was a commitment to 'a kind of socialism – that is to a society in which there are no inequalities by the very way it is ordered'.
Nazareth rightly proposes Bertolt Brecht as the greatest playwright of the 20th century and as the best example of a committed writer. Nazareth argued for an example of implicit commitment in Achebe's A Man of the People where he considered Chinua Achebe as a progressive writer because the masses portrayed in the novel are what they are because they must survive: 'It was no mean feat for them, and for Afro Americans, to survive slavery,' he wrote. He predicted from the time of Weep Not Child (1964) that Ngugi would view Kenya's problems from a perspective of 'a kind of socialism'. He stands for good committed literary works.
Peter Nazareth encouraged East African literati on East African literature. I was one of the beneficiaries of his wise counsel. He encouraged me in so many ways not only when I was doing my doctoral research on East African literature , but in my editorial work on Standpoints On African Literature, Journal of East African Literature and Society (Joliso). He always wanted to hear from me and asked me to furnish him with information on what was being published in East Africa. He felt cut off from East Africa when Idi Amin threw him out of Uganda, not only as a senior civil servant in Uganda's Ministry of Finance, but also from his fervent and energetic contributions to literature as a writer-critic; all because he was an Indian.
In the third phase of his criticism, Nazareth was forcefully separated from Uganda, the land of his birth. He would have wanted to remain in touch with the more progressive forces in East Africa. He was forced to widen his universe to include the literature of South East Asia and the Third World, a geographical term which implied the margin vis-à-vis Euro-North America which enjoyed a social and cultural centrality. On landing in the US, Nazareth was confronted by a new universe: 'Like thousands of people, I am upset about the Chilean coup. I believe the US was behind it and that Allende was for peasants and workers against imperialism and its local (class) agents. As Nkrumah would have said, there is clearly a class struggle in Chile. The West only permits 'democracy' in the neo-colonies when it operates in the interests of the middle class. And look at Latin America today, to see Africa tomorrow.'
Nazareth's essays are now about literary migration which is a form of alienation which he shares with such writers in the Western tradition, setting the pace for men living with varying degrees of unease in lands of conflicting cultures. The example of Peter Nazareth's alienation can be compared to that of Narayan, Anand, Mascarenhas and Carrimbhoy - all writers of Indian extraction.
By Chris L Wanjala, PhD, EBS
Professor of Literature
University of Nairobi, Kenya.