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
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.
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,
Tarriona Ball: Letter from New Orleans
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.