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A Tale of One City I didn’t recognise myself – I was me but she was different

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,

Warsan

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.

On a

Sticky

Summer

Happy

Humid

Day

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

The men

Hands as cotton

Picked

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

Or

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

We

dance in the rain

Feet

never stingy with the feeling

Legs

always giving

Hands

receiving

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

So,

Smile.

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