21, from Andover, Massachusetts
Williams, a Princeton senior (and Harry Potter junkie), made his first trip to Africa in 2005, when he worked to advance AIDS education through Swahili street theater. Returning to Kenya in 2006, he did research for his creative-writing thesis, whose protagonist is a pharmacist because, says Williams, it felt “like maybe a more liminal figure than a doctor would be.” An excerpt from that work is below.
In His Teacher’s Words
“From the first, I recognized Josh as a fellow writer,” says Joyce Carol Oates. “And while I oversaw his work closely, I had few opportunities to ‘correct’ him in any way.”
From “The Window House”
Turner drifts in and out of a doze. He didn’t sleep much on either the Newark-London or the London-Nairobi flight—and that in intermittent, shallow unconsciousnesses—and now his body is straining for release. He thinks of his pills, in the zippered inner pocket of his shoulder bag—but it’s down under his feet and now the children are draped heavy across his knees, so there’s nothing for it. So he sits and waits and watches, drifting in and out of dreams: the long silver fuselage of the bus, oncoming headlights like star-points, like bright low stars—the scattering of lights in the fields—Bird’s looking-glass eyes—mother, Africa—the rattle and stomp of potholes, dancing, sex, down oh down—that pervert baby soon—what do you care what do you care—hot sick balloon reach of doubt, change, little towns flash—reaching—oh please oh reach—
Dawn wakes him. He rubs his eyes, shifts against the ache that’s gathered in his neck and the knobs of his joints. They are edging along a narrow, sandy road riddled with potholes and lined with ramshackle chop shops, fruit vendors, barbers and bars. Here and there: handfuls of tall, ungainly palms. Mottled yellow light falls through.
The road doubles back on itself now, to skirt a little hill, and Turner sees they are midway back in a line of mud-caked trucks trundling across a causeway bridge. Off to the right—down over the lip of the bluff, dotted mangroves, the sudden turquoise sea—there’s what looks to him like a shipyard or a small oil refinery. A nest of bones built black against the rising sky. And then Mombasa Island itself, straight in front of him down the tunnel of the bus: trees and coral rock and low, sad, building-block buildings, the spindly green and grime-white minaret of an unseen mosque, the rabble of traffic. For some reason he feels he should be surprised that this is what it is—but then he doesn’t know why, since he doesn’t know what he expected or even if he had expectations at all.
By the time they arrive at the depot—a waiting square, an office, berths and berths of sleeping buses—it is all-the-way morning. Shopkeepers are out sweeping their patches of sidewalk with hand-brooms like wooden whisks. Men in red and blue aprons dot corners, hawking newspapers. Taxi drivers and family men jockey round the bus as soon as it stops, reaching up to tap on the windows with pink circle fingertips, calling out names. At this, the others in the bus wake, stir. The women on either side of Turner start and smile and shake their heads and lift their still sleep-heavy, limp-limbed children off his lap. He imagines grim, silent Emmanuels out there waiting for them, taking them in their swift, lean arms.
The taxi driver that spots Turner first as he descends from the bus claims him as his own, leads him by the wrist over to his car and tells him wait with little flutters of his hands. Turner leans back against the car in the sea-heat, watches the driver dodge through the crowd. His mind wavers—the exhaustion, maybe. Everything around him seems strange and bright and weightless. Where are you going where have you been.
The driver returns after a minute or two, bumping Turner’s suitcase out behind. “Go go go go,” he says, and prods Turner into the car. “We go where?” Turner shows him Dr. Al’s dogged and wrinkled index card.
“Okay okay okay,” he says.
They drive slowly through the clogged and bleating streets. Now it’s practically rush hour, and vans in garish racing colors (with slogans like THE TERMINATOR or 50 CENTS air-brush stenciled across the back) stop and go and spit out clots of men and women. Blue suits and ties and flowered blouses and long white robes and saris and tourist tan and backpacks, black purdah with only eyes showing, move like a current. Turner’s driver threads his way through, looping back around into what Turner guesses is Old Town, the Muslim Quarter: older houses with carved wooden doors, the rattle of paving stones, souvenir stands.
They come to a stop at the far end of a quiet, cobbled square with a red Coke-a-Cola umbrella listing against the cistern and the smell of the sea. The driver gets out and points Turner around the corner to a shabby, anonymous shop with a lettered sign that says Curios in script. There is a toy cannon on the ground by the open door. Turner pays the driver, who smiles and flashes him the peace sign and disappears.
The inside of the shop is warm and dark and mothball. It takes Turner a minute for his eyes to adjust. The flat black rounds into indistinct gray outlines, then colors, then stacks of books, a dining room chair, tribal masks and carvings, an enormous metal elephant, two gramophones, standing bolts of indigo cloth, boxing gloves, bicycles, Indian gods, records, oars, seashells, shoes. “Hello?” Turner says, struck.
“Karibu ndani.” Turner starts. An old man sitting in a chair off to one side is watching him. His enormous glasses fishbowl his eyes. Leather sandals, ankle-long white robe, salted black goatee, Arab skin, round embroidered yellow hat.