Take Five with Katori Hall ’03
What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I think of my life as a series of TV shows and my first day at Columbia felt like a Beverly Hillbillies episode — the Black-ish version. I arrived on a hot-as-hell weekday with a wooden trunk that had almost been crushed during transit to the sawdust it was made of. I couldn’t yet afford a suitcase with wheels. I remember the cabbie rolling up to the campus and dropping me off at 116th on the Amsterdam side. He set my crumbling trunk on those burgundy herringbone stones and wished me luck. And here this country bumpkin was, standing on the sidewalk, with white socks that went up around my calves. I think it was those white socks that gave me away. “You need help?” I guess my southern-ness was obvious. There were two guys who’d come up to me and I asked them to watch my trunk for me. I needed to find out where John Jay was. I walked in circles for a while before asking someone to point me in the right direction. I remember my group coordinator, Natasha, looked at me with such disdain. “Where’s your stuff?” “Oh, these two guys are watching it for me ... ” Her eyes grew wide. She was born and raised in Brooklyn. “Girrrrrrrrrll, I hope it’s still there!” So we race-walked to those towering black gates and lo and behold: They were still sitting there, guarding it like it was their own. Was it a bit a naive? Perhaps. But I’ve always believed in the goodness of people. In human beings’ innate sense of kindness. The guys didn’t even go to the school but they carried my trunk all the way to John Jay for me. I’m not so naive anymore, but because of those two young men, I still think people are inherently good.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
I had heard the horror stories of sharing a room with a crazy roommate. I didn’t want to deal with too-loud sex or having to turn my TV off at night so I opted for good old John Jay for that single life. And I’m so glad I did. But unfortunately, I soon found out those walls were thin. I still had to contend with things that went hump in the night.
What class do you most remember and why?
I will always remember the playwriting course I took with Professor Austin Flint GSAS’57 (may he rest in power). I really struggled with finding my voice after I had taken some Barnard playwriting courses with teachers who had been extremely dismissive of the stories and people I wanted to write about. I remember the first week of class Professor Flint gave us a cool writing assignment: “You have two people in a room fighting over an object. Go.” In my mind’s eye I saw a man and a woman fighting over a mojo bag. The more I wrote, the woman became a girl named Toulou who had fled the cotton fields of Mississippi to become a blues singer in Memphis, the man her brother. In the mojo bag? Remnants of her past lover. It seemed like in a flash it came to me fully formed — that writing exercise turned into a pivotal scene in my first full-length play, Hoodoo Love. I was writing about my Memphis home that I saw so much more clearly from my perch in NYC. But I was also writing about myself, about coming into my own as an artist. Finding my voice. Professor Flint was the mentor I needed; he appreciated my affinity for Southern black vernacular and urged me to find the poetry in the voice of my ancestors. It was the moment I finally became a playwright. Don’t know if I would be here were it not for his loving guidance.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
Anywhere my besties Tony and Marva were. Their rooms were always a refuge for me. I remember the night before 9-11 we had a sleepover in Tony’s room in Schapiro Hall. That morning Tony ran in from working out at the gym and told me to turn on the TV. I did and there it was, the first tower burning. I stood there glued to the TV and watched the second tower get hit. It was horrifying and mesmerizing at the same time. Here I was in NYC and it seemed as though the sky was falling. Marva came over soon after and we spent the whole day locked away in Tony’s room staring at the television. Oddly enough, even though I could see the rising smoke from the falling towers outside our window, I experienced 9-11 like most Americans — through a television set.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
I would have actually learned how to swim. Somehow I gathered enough courage and floated long enough during my mandatory swim test. I ended up having to take swimming lessons a few years ago because my floating game is not strong at all nowadays.