What’s the best way to understand a city? Through the insights of a local or the fresh eyes of an outsider? WeTransfer Studios decided to try both. We asked LA-based poet Warsan Shire to write a letter to New Orleans, and local poet and musician Tarriona “Tank” Ball to reply on behalf of the city.
Photographs of New Orleans by Akasha Rabut.
Warsan Shire: Letter to New Orleans
Dear New Orleans,
Every city I visit or pass through, I think of these words by Adrienne Rich: “Lonely as a woman/driving across the country/leaving behind little towns/she might have stopped/and lived/and died in.” I left thinking about what life could’ve been with you.
Living in Los Angeles for the past two years, I can admit I’d begun to fade away; I watched my anxiety grow into agoraphobia. When the invitation came to visit you, I could feel myself fill up, sit up straighter.
I felt summoned.
It was generous of you to introduce me to people you’ve grown with. Tank who I love already, described you as “bleeding water” in our first conversation, then as “so beautiful and so ugly.” That reminds me of my home.
It was miraculous watching that statue get dragged down on Malcolm X’s birthday. We stood under the sun for hours watching the rope hang over it. The workmen were wearing bulletproof vests and balaclavas. People cheered as it came down. Children and adults played Double Dutch, behind them a trombonist’s rendition of Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye. Thank you for this memory.
The whole time I was with you, this Alice Walker quote rang around in my head: “There are those who believe black people possess the secret of joy and that it is this that will sustain them through any spiritual or moral or physical devastation.”
At the Second line, I fell in love with the Divine Ladies. There’s a Somali dance called buraanbur– I saw similarities in how the women almost spun into flight, insulting gravity, how they danced until they blurred, until they broke into light.
Once or twice I blinked and thought I saw a tuft emerge, a wing sprout, a woman fly towards the sun and descend glowing, twerking under the natural light of God. What a dream.
Speaking of dreams, on our first night together, I dreamt I was on Lido beach in Mogadishu and the Civil War never happened. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t recognise myself – I was me but she was different.
There is something that those who have been to hell and back possess. The rest of the world romanticizes it, wants to know how to attain it without suffering. People travel from all over the world to witness examples of when the human spirit should have broken but did not. They think by being witness, they can be initiated into this secret world of unauthorized joy.
Recently I watched the documentary Babushkas of Chernobyl, have you seen it? It’s about grandmothers who return to Chernobyl to live. The government doesn't seem to understand why they would want to go back when the radiation levels are so high. They sing about how surreal and painful it is to be a refugee within your own country, but you already know about that.
The Babushkas who were forced out, weep and sing about yearning to be buried on their homeland. There is the belief that your spirit will not pass into the next world if your body is buried in the wrong place. Where do the spirits of those who’ve never known home go?
I said a prayer for all who carry that untranslatable grief. I grew up in north west London, a child of refugees. They were black, Muslim and heartbroken, they still are.
At the airport, waiting for the flight back to LA, I saw a man prostrating in the middle of strangers. It’d been so long since I’d seen someone get down on their knees in a public space and pray. I couldn’t stop watching him, I was so comforted I felt myself subconsciously mimic his movements, memory synchronised – Asalamu alaikum over your right shoulder, then again over your left.
I hope to see you soon.
All my love,
Warsan Shire is an award-winning Somali-British writer and poet. Her debut pamphlet Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth was published in 2011. She was the first Young Poet Laureate of London, and provided the film adaptation and poetry for Beyoncé's Lemonade.
Tarriona Ball: Letter from New Orleans
As long as the sun has been kind
I'll remind you that the ground you step on is holy
That even our church shutters sing in the street
Our screen door, a whistle
I'll remind you of the Congo
The hands of freedom
The marches that reach past millions
I'll tell you of the jazz clubs that grew legs and second lined for me
The women thick legs and soft hair
Hands as cotton
I'll tell you how they
Louisa'd their way into my very heart
Dug a canal through my spirit
And Louis Armstrong their song into my home.
I'll tell you how I took a trip to the lake for daiquiris for shhh talk and drown in firewater
How I suck the head of a crawfish because my neighbor dared me to
How the taste excited my shoes
For they danced too
I'll tell you of magnolia trees
Sno ball stained Sunday dresses
And neighbors that won't stay in their own business
The porch steps that have become both sanctuary and town hall
dance in the rain
never stingy with the feeling
Praising our own selves
While God watches in amusement
Laughed so hard one day he cried
Sent a storm to cleanse the street
And we still never missed a beat!
I put the kool in kool aid
The lean in praline
The YaY in beignets
The New in Orleans
Check the scene?
Ain't nothing as pretty as me
I'm so pretty!
I'm so pretty !
I'm so pretty!
Have you too sober to stay
And too drunk to leave
Allen Toussaint reminded me to speak on the music scene
The jazz bop
The cool cats with the slick tongues
And the bee bop
Miles Davis told me keep it to myself
Wouldn't want anyone stealing what's left
So I filled my mouth with pecan pie until there wasn't a piece left.
See if you were mine I'd parade you around like a float on Mardi Gras
Adorn you with fallen beads I found on St Charles
Catch a coconut for you
Maybe even a sphere!
Anything that would make you smile
As wide as the fairgrounds
So next time I see you
I want you to wear something pretty for me
Perhaps purple or green
A shimmer of gold for the creole
In your genes
An Afro indigo negro for the beauty in the seams
Something that compliments the New Orleans
In your eyes
The journey in your miles
And the super Sunday in your smile
Tarriona “Tank” Ball is an artist, poet and musician born and raised in New Orleans. She is the lead singer of Tank and the Bangas, a funk-soul group based in the city.