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How to Say Babylon: A Memoir


How to Say Babylon: A Memoir

Raised in the lush paradise of Jamaica, Safiya Sinclair was born to two Rastafarian parents, both of whom found the religion after suffering traumatic and lonely childhoods. But while Rastafari became their salvation, Sinclair’s father’s strict adherence to its rules on purity became the young girl’s prison. In HOW TO SAY BABYLON, Sinclair chronicles her parents’ path to Rastafari, her upbringing under her father’s watchful eye, and her eventual path to freedom, bolstered by her mother’s love of poetry.

Whether you can quote every lyric of a Bob Marley song, have wondered about the dreadlocked hair of Rastafari practitioners, or have merely heard the word “Rastafari,” there is no doubt that you have certain feelings about the religion and political movement. But it is unlikely that you know about the core tenets of Rastafari beliefs, especially not those of one of its strictest sects, Nyabinghi.

"[Sinclair's] cadenced prose, discerning eye and ability to gaze unflinchingly into her family’s painful past turn this book into a gift of its own, a liberating maxim on the power of rebellion."

Set against an unbending set of tenets on asceticism, Nyabinghi and its followers believe in protecting themselves and fighting against the “isms and schisms” of the world, namely colonialism, racism, capitalism, consumerism and all evil systems of Western ideology as championed by white American and European culture. They call these temptations and the world that fosters them Babylon, and they believe that Babylon is constantly breathing down their necks, threatening to weaken Black practitioners and render them powerless. They also believe that women in particular are more susceptible because of their menstruation, which renders them “unclean” at a certain time of the month. To strengthen themselves against this weakness, female followers live modestly, eschewing makeup, covering their hair, and acting with humility and docility.

This is the religion and mindset in which Sinclair was born. As a young girl, she idolized her father but even then was starting to grow weary of his outbursts and paranoia, which often led to angry rants against Babylon well into the night. But more than that, she was terrified, petrified, of the idea of her own cleanliness --- and how easily, he told her, she could become an unclean woman. Given her biological programming as a woman, she knows that puberty and menstruation (and therefore impurity) are coming for her, and the double-edged sword of wanting to grow, live and experience while avoiding her fate of uncleanliness is often too much for her young mind to bear.

Still, Sinclair’s childhood was a happy one. She, her parents and her siblings lived peacefully for a time on her mother’s family’s beach property, the sea providing the soundtrack, grounding and salvation of their lives. But as Sinclair grew up, her father’s devotion to Rastafari increased, and his other somewhat negative traits --- antisocialness, paranoia, jealousy --- were exacerbated as a result. This is how Sinclair found herself and her family leaving her beloved coastal home and heading into Jamaica’s countryside, a land as foreign to her as the wicked streets of Babylon.

A musician, Sinclair’s father once tasted success but has since fallen victim to the brutality of the industry. At home, his need for control peaks, with his children often subjected to crazed sermons, brutal beatings and vicious putdowns. The loss of control he feels in his life not only has seeped into his family home, but also pushed him to find that control elsewhere, particularly when it comes to the women of his family. After a point, this violence and toxicity become compulsory for him, so entrenched in his beliefs that he starts to avoid even fellow Rastafarians, forcing his family into strict isolation.

While this isolation would be crippling to some and deadly to others, Sinclair --- under the guidance of her mother --- becomes somewhat of a prodigy. A talented, gifted student, she begins to write poetry at the age of 10 after being given a book of poems by her mother, a nurturing and compassionate, if somewhat submissive, woman. When she lands a scholarship to a prestigious school, her father is proud and delighted at the idea of his own daughter rubbing elbows with the children of businessmen and millionaires. Despite his railings against the trappings of Babylon, he encourages her to take advantage of her opportunity and fly under the radar of racist classmates and teachers.

However, as Sinclair matures and reaches her teenage years, her father’s fierce devotion to his religion reaches a tipping point, riven by contradiction: he despises Babylon and its temptations, but also yearns for the privileges and freedoms it would bring. It is in this idiosyncrasy where Sinclair sees most clearly the damage that his belief system has wrought, not just on him but also on his family. And through her love of the written word, poetry and herself, she begins to plot a way out of his control.

Written in the voice and lyricism of a poet, HOW TO SAY BABYLON is more than just a memoir of a unique life. Sinclair is generous and raw in her telling of her unusual upbringing in Rastafari, but she also provides a thorough education on colonialism, the history of Black enslavement, and the amputated history of the Black diaspora. Each of these elements --- tragic and traumatic --- leads her father to his Rastafarian beliefs; each is a building block of the prison of a household that she finds herself living in as a teenager. Yet Sinclair never goes quite so far as to villainize him, focusing instead on the ways her mother cultivated within her a love of the written word and musing about whether or not her relationship with her father will ever reach a point where it is salvageable.

That Sinclair and her father are both artists seeking salvation through their work provides a gorgeous through line of love in this otherwise explosive memoir. But the star here is really Sinclair, whose cadenced prose, discerning eye and ability to gaze unflinchingly into her family’s painful past turn this book into a gift of its own, a liberating maxim on the power of rebellion. Perfect for readers of EDUCATED, MAID and BORN A CRIME, HOW TO SAY BABYLON more than delivers on every count.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 6, 2023

How to Say Babylon: A Memoir
by Safiya Sinclair

  • Publication Date: October 3, 2023
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: 37 Ink
  • ISBN-10: 1982132337
  • ISBN-13: 9781982132330