Becoming a Writer, Valuing Vulnerability
Issue   |   Thu, 05/18/2017 - 20:20
Amir Hall '17
Known for his warmth and talent for language, Hall was selected by his peers to deliver the Commencement address.

Amir Denzel Hall writes the way he speaks. Regardless of his medium, his voice always carries warmth, humor and vulnerability. With a gift for storytelling, he has the ability to make any person feel comfortable.

I became friends with Hall during an English class my first semester at Amherst. In “Reading, Writing & Teaching” with Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander, we spent a significant amount of time outside regular class meetings for various trainings. I recall driving with Hall and a few of our classmates to Holyoke, listening to the way his voice could fill the car. We laughed at his self-described ridiculous jokes as he pretended to analyze a street sign for its meaning, telling us, “It’s a commentary on itself.”

Hall was certainly a significant part of making that classroom feel like a cohesive community, and his presence has made other clubs, classes and rooms feel more open and full of life.

But perhaps even more than his spirit, I admire the way in which Hall is able to find words for specific experiences. In our interview, I noticed the specificity with which he recalled his memories — all the names of the people present in a scene, the temperature or the particular motions of bodies. His creative thesis with the English department, “Who Love You?” is also filled with such detailed and particular language. It is this attention to life and relational thinking that makes Hall so distinctive.

“A Legacy of Tardiness”
Hall grew up in several places around Trinidad and Tobago with his mother, father and brother. Before applying to Amherst, he spent a gap year preparing to apply for colleges while working at a bar.

His classmate in Trinidad, Jayson Paul ’16, was the first person to suggest he apply to Amherst. Hall noted he was drawn to the idea of the liberal arts because of the opportunity to explore multiple fields. “I liked the idea of the liberal arts because our system is very, like, rigid and very career-oriented,” he said. “You do the subjects that you think are in line with whatever career you do, so you have to choose pretty early.”

When the time came around to apply, however, he forgot to submit his application. “I don’t know what happened, why I forgot, because I was very intent on applying, but I just didn’t get it in on time,” he said.

Luckily, he sent an email to the admissions office, which still accepted his application. “Ever since, I joke around that I’ve continued my legacy of tardiness,” he said.

First Impressions
Hall recalled feeling a sense of openness during his first weeks at Amherst. “I was so free, and that’s probably why I know most of my class, because there was nothing holding me back from asking the questions I was interested in asking,” he said.

However, he also spoke about navigating unfamiliar social dynamics on campus. In some ways, the unfamiliarity allowed him to be more open, but it also raised points of uncertainty.

“I didn’t have the whole idea of an athlete/non-athlete divide or even a heightened sense of race,” he said. “Even though I had inhibitions and I knew that there were things going on, and I knew that I was black because I was raised to be black … I just didn’t know how that functioned here or the depth to which it functioned here.”

A critical moment, Hall noted, was befriending his first-year residential counselor, Sarah Vickery ’15. “She was just so chill and we got along so well,” he said. “It proved to me that close friendships were possible across racial lines.”

Resonance Across Generations
Hall has a special ability to forge relationships with any person he encounters. His auntie, Michele Basquiat, said that he possessed this relational talent from a young age.

“The Denzel that we know now is the Denzel I quite expected to turn out to be,” she said. “As a child, even then, he had an unusual ability to acclimate and fit in.”

When I asked Hall about the warmth with which people describe his personality, he was characteristically humble. He credited his social prowess to his family. “The charm isn’t mine,” he said. “It’s definitely my father’s and my mother’s.”

He also spoke about how he is intentional about when and how he uses his charisma. “I try to not let the charm be surface level, and I try to insert vulnerability into the charm so that people can enter into that space with me,” Hall said, “So it’s not just a warmth, and a smile, and a laugh, but it could also be something more.”

Basquiat agreed that the entire family shares this particular spirit. However, she did point out that Amir stands out. “He fits right in with the bunch, but he’s just a little ‘extra,’” she said. “And the ‘extra’ is that it’s not just within the family but he has the knack to incorporate anybody, even outside the family.”

Lifelong Friendships
Hall treats his friends like family and described lifelong friendships in the same manner as he did his relationships with blood relatives. He talked about the fluency between individuals in particularly close relationships.

“Often, love is just something like, ‘Oh, I’m stuck with this person.You know what I mean? In the same way mothers don’t know who they’re going to birth. If you choose to love, you’re choosing to stick it through,” Hall said.

Within these friendships, Hall spoke about moments that seem to echo across time. He recounted one memory of cooking with friends.

“That’s when the moment began — that’s when the echo began to ring and I started looking around,” he said. “I was standing by the sink and the sink was running. There was food on the pot. I just panned the area because that seemed so familiar to me that they would be somewhere in this house with me.” In recounting this and other memories, his voice was certainly filled with a depth and tenor, which reflected the love that must have filled these moments. “I think it’s a blessing to inhabit that space with friends, and I think lifelong friends are like that — they’re just there.”

Indeed, Hall’s friends appreciate and return his love — and then some. Elliot Cassutt, a former classmate, characterized Hall as unconstrained and multifaceted.

“Amir is difficult to define,” he wrote. “There are so many sides of him that I’m not even going to try to explain, and most of them are good.” He also noted how Hall brought him to unexpected places. “There are a hundred things I did or experiences I had while at Amherst that I never thought I’d be able to do, and almost all of them were with Amir.”

Lolade Fadulu ’17 spoke about the way in which Hall is attentive to his friends. The first time they met, Hall “asked me questions and listened intently to my answers,” she said. “Since then, he hasn’t stopped asking me questions and listening intently.”

It is this sort of attunement to others that permits his friends to bring themselves to the table. Although it is difficult to pin down the exact feeling Hall brings out in each of them, perhaps the exact gift of the feeling is that it cannot be specifically defined. Fadulu said one of the special things about Amir is that no one needs to overthink themselves around him.

“Amir helped me become less of a brain in a body and more of a full person completely embodied,” she said.

Becoming a Writer
Hall has navigated his academic career with the same sensitivity, knack for understanding emotion and attention to detail that characterizes his social life. He spoke highly of a number of professors who have all helped him shape his writing in their own specific way.

“One thing I’m really grateful to Amherst College for is allowing me the space to grow creatively,” he said. “Although I think I always would have written, I don’t think I would have believed myself to be a writer or to possibly become a writer had I not been here.”

Friends and family certainly value his eye for good writing. His auntie Jocelyn King said, “Every book he recommends I read, I read.”

Hall has even influenced his professors’ teaching. From his first fiction course, his voice began to change the shape of classes at the college. Judith Frank, an English professor, wrote about how Hall inspired a change in her rule about not writing in dialect in her course, “Fiction Writing I.”

“Amir came into Fiction I and saw that rule, he was worried, because as it turned out, he wanted to write entirely in Trinidadian Creole,” she said. “That was the semester I changed the rule ... I realized that if I wanted to support my students’ efforts to portray lives like theirs as fully as possible, I needed to become a skillful teacher of writing dialect.”

At the end of his senior year, professors and friends felt that he created a certain kind of magic with his thesis. Cobham-Sander wrote that after reading his project, “It made my heart ache, in the way I sometimes feel when I confront a particular kind of pain that I know will never really go away. I don’t think a piece of student writing has ever made me feel quite that way.”

An Artist and his Audience
Next year, Hall will stay on at Amherst as the graduate design assistant for the theater and dance department. He hopes to pursue either a Master of Fine Arts in performance studies or a Master of Theology. Regardless of his choice, his studies will ultimately inform his future work as an artist of many mediums.

“I just want dedicated time to making work,” he said. Specifically, he envisions work that will truly engage with its audience.

“If you come to a show of mine, you would leave sweaty because you would be dancing at some point and time, but also that sweat would merge with tears,” he said. With his art, he desires to reflect a range of emotion and wants his audiences to be able to be vulnerable.

Many people, including myself, look forward to seeing what Hall will create. As I interviewed friends and family for this article, I was moved but unsurprised by the sheer amount of love and support that has and will always surround Hall. In the words of Basquiat, “I don’t think enough good and wonderful things can happen to him.”

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