May 24, 2024



Exploring the Heart of ‘Foreign’: An Interview with Keith Kareem Williams

11 min read

We’re exploring the immigrant experience with Keith Kareem Williams as he shares insights into his latest novel “Foreign” in an exclusive interview with Intellectual Ink Magazine. From the allure of the American Dream to the complexities of family dynamics, explore the rich tapestry of themes woven into this gripping narrative. Don’t miss out on this captivating journey!

My grandparents, on both my mother and father’s side, immigrated from Jamaica to the United States in the 70s and left children behind until they somewhat established themselves here, in the US. For years, I’ve thought about what I know of my grandparents’ experience and then the experiences of my parents as teens who suddenly found themselves living in a new country. I also reminisced about what it was like for me and my cousins as first-generation American kids. (Yankee pickneys as the elders would call us. LOL) It made me want to tell the type of Urban story I’m known for but re-mixed with a different twist.

In the early parts of the story, the family is apart. The patriarch, George Barret wasn’t able to secure his papers so his family had to temporarily leave him behind. My grandmother experienced something similar. She came to America and left a husband behind. I wanted to show what type of sacrifices families make, why they make them, and the unfortunate consequences that sometimes occur in those types of situations. In pursuit of the American Dream, the price of admission can be costly, which echoed throughout the pages of “Foreign.” I show how difficult it is to start over in a new country. In fact, that hardship drove some of the characters in a direction that they might have never explored if not for how hard things were for them.

Of course!

As the Barret tries to navigate their way through American life, they have one constant and one, rock-solid foundation…each other. In parts of the book, I show how parents fear for their children in an environment that even they have not come to fully understand yet. Through all of their trials and tribulations, I show how unbreakable their bond is. They weather storms and terrible burdens together. I also show how dire the consequences are once there is a crack in that trust because of secrets and old lies.

I showed that “lack” is often the main motivation for morally ambiguous decisions. If given the choice between watching his family suffer in poverty or, doing questionable things to make sure that they prosper, many people might choose the latter, as did George eventually. It tortured him to watch his wife struggle alone while he tried his hardest to find honest work, to no avail. But, even as he becomes entangled in that criminal underworld, he doesn’t completely lose himself. He still holds on to many of his core values, as I show you even through the acts of his son and grandson, who admire him and are an extension of him. 

I wanted to show George’s humanity and imperfection. I’ve always found it fascinating how children often worship their parents when they have never really seen their parents’ flaws. Sometimes, it’s not until we are adults ourselves and see the world through more experienced eyes do we even realize how imperfect our parents really were. That either leads to resentment and blame for the mistakes they may have made or the deeper understanding that comes with empathy. For a time, George’s past seemed so far away that it could be swept under the rug and forgotten until his secrets refused to be ignored or left behind in the past. That’s where the ride gets bumpy and outright treacherous when what he thought he left behind refused to stay there.

I show a lot of that evolution and adaptation through the next generation. Also in the way the characters speak. As the story progresses, even the dialogue becomes more “American.” In subtle ways, I illustrate how the pace of life is vastly different from where they are from and where they find themselves. At times, the characters seem to fit in fine in their new country but, there are times when they hold on to their old ways/culture and appear as dangerously strange as sharks on a mountaintop. 

Forty-five minutes, five blocks, two convenience stores and one grocery stand later, George smelled the familiar aroma of good, Jamaican food in the air. He heard the soft sounds of roots reggae music and found himself in front of a Tapper’s Jamaican Restaurant. As he stared at the name of the restaurant written in red, gold and green above the entrance, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the name of the restaurant sounded familiar although he’d never eaten there or even walked on that block before. He was just about to walk off and continue on his way when he suddenly remembered where he had heard that name before. He reached into his back pocket for his wallet. Inside it, he found a small slip of paper that Richard had handed him back in Jamaica with the name of a man he should ask for work if he needed to. The name scrawled in King Richard’s terrible handwriting was “Mr. Tapper” along with the address of the restaurant he stood in front of. In disbelief, George sighed and took it as a sign before he stepped inside.

There were four small tables that each could seat four inside the restaurant. All were absent patrons except one, where two very serious men sat and ate their meals, each with a bottle of Red Stripe beer, a brand that George hadn’t seen since he left Jamaica. George felt both of the men’s gaze fall on him as they stopped eating and talking after he walked in. They watched him like hawks as he approached the counter where a heavyset, light-skinned woman waited to take his order. The busty, chunky woman looked annoyed that she had a customer and rolled her eyes as soon as she saw George.

“Breakfast finish an’ lunch nuh quite ready yet,” the woman behind the counter said with a nasty attitude before George even said a word. “Wha’ yuh want?” she rudely asked and prepared to take his lunch order.

“I’m lookin’ for work,” George answered politely despite the overwhelming urge to ask the woman who the hell she was talking to that way.

“Wha yuh’ say?” the woman behind the counter asked and sounded even more annoyed than before.

“Work. I’m lookin’ for a job,” George answered.

“We nuh have no job fi nobody. We only have oxtail, stew peas, curry goat, curry chicken, red pea soup, jerk chicken and steamed snapper,” she answered with a smug grin that instantly annoyed George.

“Is Mr. Tapper here? Somebody…a friend from back a yard tell me to come see him for work if I needed a job,” George stubbornly inquired.

“Mr. Tapper dead two months ago. Mrs. Tapper is di boss now…and mi know she nuh have no work fi you,” the woman behind the counter informed him.

“Unless you is a gunman,” one of the two men at the tables shouted sarcastically with a sinister grin.

“And you nuh look like a gunman,” the second man laughed.

“Because I’m not a gun man. I’m not a criminal,” George answered as he turned away from the counter. “Jus’ lookin’ for honest work for a decent wage,” he added as he walked out of the restaurant.

To George’s surprise, the sky was overcast when he stepped back outside and the sun was completely hidden behind dark gray, almost black, clouds. A light drizzle began as the precursor to heavy rain that was sure to burst from the sky and George wished that he had brought an umbrella with him when he left home that morning. A moment before he decided to hurry home before he got soaked, a Mercedes Benz with dark-tinted windows pulled up in front of the restaurant. The rear door opened and a tiny, light-skinned old woman with blonde hair, sunglasses and full, pouty lips stepped out of the vehicle. As she walked towards the entrance of the restaurant, a white van roared down the street and came to a screeching halt next to the Mercedes. The sliding door of the van opened and two men with machine guns began to shower the Benz with a hail of bullets. Instinctively, George grabbed the old woman, shielded her with his own body and pushed her down to the ground. The sound of screams, gunfire and shattering glass was deafening. The sound of the van’s tires screeching and the roar of its engine as it sped off was followed by deafening, eerie silence. The restaurant’s large window and front door were shattered, and bits of glass were all over the sidewalk.

The old woman who George had shielded from the deadly shower of bullets with his own body looked up at him with inquisitive, intelligent brown eyes with much shock, surprise and awe. She had never seen him before, and she had no idea who he was, but she was certain that he had just saved her life.

“Thank you, young man,” the old woman sighed in a thick Jamaican accent. “But…can you get off me…you’re heavy,” she wheezed as George’s full body weight pressed down on her fragile, elderly frame.

“Oh. Sorry,” George said as he raised up off her. He looked around and eyed the streets, just in case the shooters returned.

The two men who had been inside the restaurant ran out of the shattered front door with their guns drawn. The darker-skinned man hurried over to the car that had been riddled with holes while the fairer-skinned man hurried to the old woman’s side as George helped her to her feet.

“Mrs. Tapper, are you alright?” the man asked as he looked her up and down to make sure that she wasn’t hurt.

“I’m fine Fox,” Mrs. Tapper answered as she brushed bits of broken glass from her clothes and hair. “Thanks to him,” she added as she nodded at George. Then, she turned her attention to the black Mercedes she had arrived in. “Gorgon, how’s Tony?” she asked the dark-skinned man who had rushed out of the restaurant with Fox.

“He’s alive, but not good,” Gorgon answered as he examined Tony, her driver and saw that he bled profusely from multiple gunshot wounds.

“Take his gun before the police and ambulance get here and meet me inside,” Mrs. Tapper coldly instructed him.

“Yes Mum,” Gorgon answered and did exactly as he was told. He reached under the driver’s seat, retrieved the 9mm handgun that was stashed there and tucked it away in the waist of his slacks near the small of his back. “Don’t worry. The ambulance soon come,” he tried to reassure Tony as he reached for the man’s gun and removed it. “You’re a good soldier. You’re strong. Just hold on a little bit. You’re gonna make it.”

Tony nodded and pretended to believe Gorgon’s lie.

“Come inside with me,” Mrs. Tapper invited George as Fox walked her through the remains of the shattered door of her restaurant.

Pieces of glass crunched beneath George’s feet as he followed the old woman. Once he was inside, he noticed that there were bullet holes in the front counter and also in some of the fixtures. The woman who had first greeted George when he had walked into the restaurant had hidden behind the counter and slowly peeked over the register as she stood up to make sure that it was safe.

“Bernice, you alright?” Mrs. Tapper asked.

Bernice sighed, smiled and checked her body comically for bullet holes.

“I’m alright Missus T,” Bernice answered.

“Thank goodness,” Mrs. Tapper said as she breathed a sigh of relief and sat down at one of the small tables. Bernice was like a daughter to her and if she had been hurt, Mrs. Tapper would have been heartbroken. Then, she turned her attention to George. “Have a seat young man,” she offered.

George nervously obliged her. He had no idea why someone had shot up her restaurant but he was certain he didn’t want to get caught up in whatever trouble would probably follow. In the distance, he heard the wail of sirens but no one in the restaurant seemed too concerned. The elderly Mrs. Tapper shook her head as she looked around at all the damage that had been done to the place that was her pride and joy.

“Fox,” Mrs. Tapper called out.

“Yes Mrs. T,” Fox answered from the shattered front door where he stood guard as police cars and cops began to flood the street just outside.

“When the police leave, get me some of the young boys from the block to come and clean up this mess,” she said as she shook her head and looked around. “I’ll pay them a couple dollars,” she added.

“Yes, Mrs. T,” Fox answered.

“I’ll do it,” George interjected and volunteered.

Bernice, Fox and Mrs. Tapper all stared at him with surprise and raised eyebrows.

“Why would you do that?” Mrs. Tapper asked, both curious and leery about the stranger who she had only met just a few minutes ago.

“I came here looking for work. I can patch these bullet holes and clean up all this broken glass. If the job pays, I’ll do it. I have a family to take care of,” George answered.

Mrs. Tapper studied George intensely for a few moments. She still didn’t know what to make of the stranger who had heroically and selflessly used his body to shield her from a hail of bullets. As she stared into his eyes, she recognized a subtle kindness and gritty toughness that she had no choice but to admire.

“If you need work, I think I can find something better for you to do than clean up glass. Come with me,” Mrs. Tapper told George as she stood up from the small table.

Fox and Bernice watched closely as George got up and followed Mrs. Tapper to the back office in the restaurant. She was like a mother to them both and they didn’t exactly feel comfortable with her being alone with a random stranger, especially not after the restaurant had just been shot up.


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