Surrounded by shelves stacked full of books, Peter Nazareth points to his first Elvis Presley record, the swirling, colorful portrait a student painted in his likeness, and a poem on skiffle music written for him by the Irish poet Thomas McCarthy. He has listened, observed, and read these objects over and over, but Nazareth always discovers new meaning.
He does not stop at connotation. He can relate each piece to the next, interpreting across various fine art genres.
“That is the classic role of my ethnicity, to be a mediator,” Nazareth said. “To take from one culture to another, one art form to another…I call it my own gumbo.”
An English and World Studies Professor at the University of Iowa, Nazareth specializes in critiquing and writing literature.
“I draw from my life story in order to interpret other people’s writing,” Nazareth said. “This way I can endlessly write my life story because it’s different every time.”
Nazareth was not always a citizen of Iowa City. He is of Goan descent (Goa is currently a state of India), but before he was born his family moved to Uganda to work for the British government. It was here that he spent his childhood, although he was always traveling and visiting his large extended, multicultural family.
“In my family we have people who are Chinese, Malay, Malacca, Portuguese, Eurasian, Tamil, also Swiss, Danish…it’s a very long list,” Nazareth said.
Growing up in Uganda, he listened to music all the time. Nazareth would go to town and try the records, which he said store owners used to allow.
“I grew up on country music…that became my music. But most of all I loved rock and roll,” he said, smiling.
In the mid 1960s, Nazareth accepted a job at the Ministry of Finance in Uganda, where he worked in administration for seven years. Finance however, was not his dream job.
“If you lived in Entebbe, which means ‘seat’, essentially all you could do was work for the government,” Nazareth said.
Somehow Nazareth still found time to write. By the time he made the choice to leave Uganda, he was publishing two of his books.
“Almost all writers, no matter where they come from, they have to go into a kind of exile in order to keep on expanding their writing, and that’s what happened to me,” he said.
His decision to move was a combination of a fellowship to Yale and also of former Uganda President, Idi Amin’s order to exile those of Asian origin from the country, otherwise known as the expulsion.
“You never knew when you woke up in the morning whether you were going to be alive at night,” Nazareth said. “It was both chaotic in one way and really quite normal in other ways…we lived through it.”
While Nazareth lived with uncertainty in Uganda at this time, he still had some apprehension about moving to the United States.
“I thought it was a really violent country because we would read lots of stories about people killing one another,” he said. “I came here not thinking of this as the promise land, but rather a place to be rather cautious about.”
This worry came from reading news of what was happening in the United States. But Nazareth discovered that the United States was so vast, and the violence he had seen was spread over a large area. And when he moved to New Haven, Nazareth said he noticed that Americans, “specifically Mid-westerners,” were often very friendly and eager to help.
In his experience traveling around the world and living in two very different countries, Nazareth said he has found much more in common between people than differences.
“There was always a way of connecting to people,” he said.
However, Nazareth noted some cultural differences.
In Uganda, “most of the time you were quite reserved, you didn’t express your deepest feelings, but in the U.S. you do,” he said. Also in Uganda, “I was noticed to be an Asian, but in the U.S., nobody had any pre-given reaction to me. That was an unusual experience…I could be seen as an individual.”
By this time, Nazareth was already married to Mary Requela Fernandes. They met in Uganda through family connections and stayed in touch for many years before Nazareth proposed to Requela unexpectedly with a donut as a ring.
Requela was also Goan and from a small African town, although she said their backgrounds had almost nothing to do with their being together.
“This is what I got from D. H. Lawrence, my favorite author at that time: ‘When the time is right for you to have the relationship with somebody or get married, nothing else matters,’ and that is what was in my head,” Nazareth said. “Something about her eyes attracted me.”
When Nazareth arrived in the United States, he had already found literature to be his “dharma.”
“Literature was always his first love,” Requela said. “When we went grocery shopping, he would sit in a corner by the door or walk behind me reading a book.”
Nazareth and Requela now work with the International Writer’s Program at the University of Iowa, where they help international writers transition to living in Iowa City.
Though literature was always his passion, at one point in his life, Nazareth was torn between his love for music and his passion for literature.
A descendant of a family of musicians, Nazareth taught himself to play the clarinet. There was no band to join at the university he attended as an undergrad in Uganda, so he created a jazz band where he was the leader.
But Nazareth felt he was not as skilled as other musicians at the time. He knew his true talent was with literature.
Fortunately, he found a way to connect the two. This connection is what makes his teaching distinctive among professors.
“I brought music into what I was doing in literature,” Nazareth said. “The sense of timing, the references, the way people respond to music, the analyzing of lyrics, drawing from them.”
Nazareth came to Iowa City in 1973 to teach at the University of Iowa, and he has taught there ever since. He received a lot of attention for his course, “Elvis As Anthology.”
One of his students, Steve Ellerhoff, recalled a time Nazareth played a Branford Marsalis album in class in order to analyze a book by an African author.
“He shows his students that humanity is in constant dialogue with itself, and some of the best conversations going on within that dialogue happen in the arts,” Ellerhoff said.
Another student, Diana Dang, remembered missing the first few days of Nazareth’s class.
“Can I get notes?” Dang said.
“Then he told me, ‘No, just listen to the music.’”
She thought his method of catching her up in the course was unique, but she said it made a huge impact on the way she understood literature.
Nazareth, now 70, said he has been asked many times whether he will retire.
“I say, ‘The day I stop giving my students energy and stop getting energy from them. This includes ideas, perspectives, and different ways of seeing things.”
“When you teach you are also being taught, and I’m always learning from student reactions," he said. "That’s why my own understanding of Uganda, of my writing has grown and expanded.”
To his students, Nazareth still gives out great amounts of energy. His students described a paradigm shift after their experience in his class and said he is a kind man who works to help them succeed even after the course is finished.
“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.”