A New York Times Notable Book A Read with Jenna Today Show Book Club Pick! A Best Book of 2023 by the New York Times, Time, The Washington Post, Vulture, Shelf Awareness, Goodreads, Esquire, The Atlantic, NPR, and Barack Obama
With echoes of Educated and Born a Crime, How to Say Babylon is the stunning story of the author’s struggle to break free of her rigid Rastafarian upbringing, ruled by her father’s strict patriarchal views and repressive control of her childhood, to find her own voice as a woman and poet.
Throughout her childhood, Safiya Sinclair’s father, a volatile reggae musician and militant adherent to a strict sect of Rastafari, became obsessed with her purity, in particular, with the threat of what Rastas call Babylon, the immoral and corrupting influences of the Western world outside their home. He worried that womanhood would make Safiya and her sisters morally weak and impure, and believed a woman’s highest virtue was her obedience.
In an effort to keep Babylon outside the gate, he forbade almost everything. In place of pants, the women in her family were made to wear long skirts and dresses to cover their arms and legs, head wraps to cover their hair, no make-up, no jewelry, no opinions, no friends. Safiya’s mother, while loyal to her father, nonetheless gave Safiya and her siblings the gift of books, including poetry, to which Safiya latched on for dear life. And as Safiya watched her mother struggle voicelessly for years under housework and the rigidity of her father’s beliefs, she increasingly used her education as a sharp tool with which to find her voice and break free. Inevitably, with her rebellion comes clashes with her father, whose rage and paranoia explodes in increasing violence. As Safiya’s voice grows, lyrically and poetically, a collision course is set between them.
How to Say Babylon is Sinclair’s reckoning with the culture that initially nourished but ultimately sought to silence her; it is her reckoning with patriarchy and tradition, and the legacy of colonialism in Jamaica. Rich in lyricism and language only a poet could evoke, How to Say Babylon is both a universal story of a woman finding her own power and a unique glimpse into a rarefied world we may know how to name, Rastafari, but one we know little about.
About the Author
Safiya Sinclair was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. She is the author of the poetry collection Cannibal, winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award in Literature, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry, and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Cannibal was selected as one of the American Library Association’s Notable Books of the Year, was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Seamus Heaney First Book Award in the UK, and was longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize.
“In this remarkable memoir, Sinclair, an award-winning poet, conjures coming of age in Jamaica with her father, a reggae musician who embraced a strict sect of Rastafari and sought to protect his family from the evil and pervasive influence of the West—what Rastafari call Babylon—and coming into her own as a poet, a writer, and a young woman in charge of her own destiny.”—The New Yorker
"This memoir is a melodious wave of memories and interrogations that illustrates Sinclair's skill as both a poet and a storyteller....The magical way she strings sentences together, on its own, is reason enough to indulge in this memoir 10 years in the making.... There were numerous attempts to silence her, but Safiya Sinclair came out on the other side, victorious against patriarchy and colonialization; roaring from the hills like the lioness that she is."—NPR.org
"A courageous memoir of breaking free from a father’s oppression – and how poetry can be a salve against chaos....A story about hope, imagination and resilience."—The Guardian
"The strength of Sinclair’s memoir lies partly in its refusal to assign simple, individualized meaning to hallmark coming-of-age moments.... How to Say Babylon also captures remarkable, intensely labored journeys toward forgiveness. Far from being a trite solution to traumas, Sinclair’s striking memoir is a testament to her craft and her capacity for self-preservation." –The Atlantic
It’s impossible to put down Sinclair’s searing memoir about her childhood in Jamaica. Raised by an abusive Rastafarian father, she escapes a transient lifestyle through academic prowess and poetry. Each lyrical line sings and soars, freeing the reader as it did the writer.”—PEOPLE
“Sinclair recounts her harrowing upbringing in Jamaica in this bruising memoir…. In dazzling prose … she examines the traumas of her childhood against the backdrop of her new life as a poet in Babylon…. Readers will be drawn to Sinclair’s strength and swept away by her tale of triumph over oppression. This is a tour de force.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Sinclair’s gorgeous prose is rife with glimmering details, and the narrative’s ending lands as both inevitable and surprising. More than catharsis; this is memoir as liberation."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Dazzling. Potent. Vital. A light shining on the path of self-deliverance.” —Tara Westover, author of Educated
“An essential memoir. Sinclair’s devotion to language has been lifelong, and How to Say Babylon is the result. This book is lit from the inside by Sinclair’s determination to learn and live freely, and to see her beloveds freed, too.”—Jesmyn Ward, author of Let Us Descend
“With strikingly stunning prose, How to Say Babylon crackles with both urgency and intimacy. Sinclair is a gifted and poetic voice whose lyrical story of personal reclaiming will inspire generations.”—Tembi Locke, author of From Scratch
"How to Say Babylon is a narrative marvel, the testimony of an artist who literally writes her way out of a life of repression, isolation and abuse into one of art, freedom, love and wonder. To read it is to believe that words can save, words can heal, and words can imbue us with near divine power."—Marlon James, author ofA Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the Man BookerPrize and Black Leopard, Red Wolf
"Safiya Sinclair possesses a rare gift: her prose is gorgeous and lush but she has such exemplary control of her craft that not a word is wasted. Every sentence sings. This is the coming of age story of an artist born to parents who yearned to be free of the legacies of slavery and colonialism in Jamaica, and who sought that freedom through faith and resistance. Sinclair finds her own freedom through a brilliant imagination and deep moral courage. With this book, she joins the pantheon of great writers of the Caribbean literary tradition, standing alongside authors like Paule Marshall, Edwidge Danticat and Jamaica Kincaid. Simply stunning.”—Imani Perry, author of South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, Winner of the National Book Award
"How to Say Babylon is one of the most gut-wrenching, soul-stirring, electrifying memoirs I've ever read. It shatters every perception we have about Rastafari and lays bare our post-colonial wounds as Jamaicans with lyrical power, unflinching truth, and grace. A necessary testament filled with rich, poetic detail that haunts and dazzles."—Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Here Comes the Sun and Patsy
Some memoirs grab you by the throat with their truth-is-stranger-than-fiction storylines. Some mesmerize with the power and beauty of the writing. Every once in a while, a book comes along that does both. Sinclair has told a story that is at once universal-who has not struggled with their family at some point-- and uniquely her own, a story of growing up as a voiceless girl in a strict Rastafari household. Both beautifully rendered and an incredible story, How to Say Babylon is a tour de force.—Natasha Trethewey, New York Times bestselling author of Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir
When a gifted poet applies her hand to prose, magical, even revelatory things can result. Happily, this is the case with Safiya Sinclair of. In this lyrical, startling, and magnetic memoir about growing up Rastafari, she weaves a story rich in unsettling visions that goad and haunt while waves crest and soar in the background, beckoning a young girl toward a mysterious future. Her words sparkle like silver or pour like lava, depending on the need. —Jabari Asim, author of Yonder, a 2021New York Times Notable Book
How to Say Babylon is a poet's memoir, a daughter’s lyric, a love letter, a rebellion, and an incantation. From the material of history and mythology, both personal and political, Safiya Sinclair has gorgeously and lovingly assembled a story with radiant transformative power. I couldn’t put it down. —Nadia Owusu, author of Aftershocks