How to Say Babylon: A Memoir

How to Say Babylon: A Memoir

by Safiya Sinclair
How to Say Babylon: A Memoir

How to Say Babylon: A Memoir

by Safiya Sinclair


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Notes From Your Bookseller

Written in the kind of prose that could make any story sing, How To Say Babylon is a brilliant memoir rich with universal themes of empowerment and paired with a unique lens into a world few will find familiar but all will find intriguing. It’s a winning combination if ever there was one.

National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982132330
Publisher: S&S/37 Ink
Publication date: 10/03/2023
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 17,006
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Safiya Sinclair was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. She is the author of the memoir How to Say Babylon, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, a finalist for the Women’s Prize in Nonfiction, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, and the Kirkus Prize. How to Say Babylon was one of the New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of the year, a Washington Post Top 10 Book of 2023, a TIME magazine Top 10 Nonfiction Book of 2023, one of The Atlantic’s 10 Best Books of 2023, a Read with Jenna/TODAY show book club pick, and one of President Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2023. How to Say Babylon was also named a Best Book of the Year by The New Yorker, NPR, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Vulture, and Harper’s Bazaar, among others, and was an ALA Notable Book of the Year. The audiobook of How to Say Babylon was named a Best Audiobook of the Year by AudioFile magazine.

Sinclair is also the author of the poetry collection Cannibal, winner of a Whiting Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Addison Metcalf Award in Literature, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry, and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Sinclair’s other honours include a Guggenheim fellowship, and fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the Civitella Rainieri Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, MacDowell, Yaddo, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is currently an associate professor of creative writing at Arizona State University.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue Prologue
My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—


BEHIND THE VEIL OF TREES, night’s voices shimmered. I stood on the veranda of my family’s home in Bickersteth in the small hours after midnight, on the lonely cusp of womanhood, searching for the sea. My birthplace, a half speck of coastline hidden by the tangled forest below, was now twenty miles away in the dark. When I was a girl, my mother had taught me to read the waves of her seaside as closely as a poem. There was nothing broken that the sea couldn’t fix, she always said. But from this hillside town fenced in by a battalion of mountains, our sea was only an idea in the distance. I pressed my face into the air’s chill and listened.

Out here was the bread and backbone of our country. The thick Jamaican countryside where our first slave rebellion was born. These mountains tumbling far inland had always been our sanctuary, hillsides of limestone softened over time, pockets of caves resembling cockpits overgrown with brush, offering both refuge and stronghold for the enslaved who had escaped. Echoes of runaways still hung in the air of the deepest caves, where Maroon warriors had ambushed English soldiers who could not navigate the terrain. The English would shout commands to each other, only to hear their own voices bellowing back at them through the maze of hollows, distorted as through a dark warble of glass, until they were driven away in madness, unable to face themselves. Now more than two centuries later, I felt the chattering night wearing me mad, a cold shiver running down my bones. A girl, unable to face herself.

The countryside had always belonged to my father. Cloistered amidst towering blue mahoes and primeval ferns, this is where he was born. Where he first communed with Jah, roaring back at the thunder. Where he first called himself Rasta. Where I would watch the men in my family grow mighty while the women shrunk. Where tonight, after years of diminishment under his shadow, I refused to shrink anymore. At nineteen years old, all my fear had finally given way to fire. I rebuked my father for the first time, which drove him from the house in a blaze of fury. What would happen to me once he returned, I did not know. As my siblings and mother slept inside, frightened and exhausted by the evening’s calamity, I paced the dark veranda, trying to read the faint slip of horizon for what was to become of me.

As I stared past the black crop of bush into the night, the eyes of something unseen looked back. Something sinister. A slow mist coiled in the valley below. The air shook across the street, by the standpipe where we filled our buckets with water when the pipes in our house ran dry. There, emerging from the long grasses, was a woman in white. The woman appeared like a birdcatcher spider ambling out of its massive web. Her face, numb and smudged away, appeared to me as my own face. I stood unmoving, terrified as I watched this vision of my gray self glide down the hill toward me, cowed and voiceless in that long, white dress. Her head was bowed, her dreadlocks wrapped in a white scarf atop her head, walking silently under the gaze of a Rastaman. All the rage that I burned with earlier that night had been smothered out of her. She cooked and cleaned and demurred to her man, bringing girlchild after girlchild into this world who cooked and cleaned and demurred to her man. To be the humbled wife of a Rastaman. Ordinary and unselfed. Her voice and vices not her own. This was the future my father was building for me. I squeezed the cold rail of the veranda. I understood then that I needed to cut that woman’s throat. Needed to chop her down, right out of me.

There, I could see where these fraught years of my adolescence had been leading—with each step I had taken into womanhood, the greater my hunger for independence. The more of this world I had discovered, the more I rejected the cage my father had built for me. There, in her frayed outline, I saw it, finally: If I were to forge my own path, to be free to make my own version of her, I had to leave this place. If I were to ever break free of this life, I had to run. But how would I ever find my way out? How would I know where to begin? Here, in the same hills that had made my father, now sprung the seed of my own rebellion.

I was being called to listen to what the land already knew. To unwind the hours that led to this catastrophic night, I had to exorcise the ghost of its making; I had to first understand my father and the history of our family. To carve my own way forward, I had to first make my way back. To where the island’s loom and my family’s yarn made one knotted thread. I had to follow until I could find just where this story’s weaving began: decades before I was born, before my father was born. Before he had a song for this strange captivity, and a name for those he longed to burn. And before I learned too well how to say it.


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