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How to Say Babylon

A Memoir



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About The Book

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.


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.


Reading Group Guide

How to Say Babylon
Discussion Guide

1. How does How to Say Babylon explore the themes of religion, family, and identity?

2. How does Safiya Sinclair's writing style and voice evolve throughout the memoir?

3. What are some of the challenges and obstacles that Safiya faces as she tries to break free from her father's repressive control?

4. What was your understanding of Rastafarian culture and religion before reading How to Say Babylon? After?

5. What are some of the ways in which Safiya’s experiences are shaped by her race, gender, and class?

6. How does Safiya’s memoir shed light on the legacy of colonialism and racism in Jamaica and beyond?

7. What role does poetry, writing, and reading play in Safiya’s life and her journey to self-discovery?

8. How does Safiya’s memoir explore the complex relationship between fathers and daughters?

9. What are some of the ways in which Safiya’s memoir challenges traditional notions of womanhood and motherhood?

10. How does Safiya’s memoir explore the themes of forgiveness, redemption, and healing?

11. What are some of the ways in which Sinclair's memoir resonates with your own experiences and perspectives?

12. What is the significance of the title, How to Say Babylon?

About The Author

Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

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 YearThe 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.


Product Details

  • Publisher: 37 Ink (October 3, 2023)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982132330

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Raves and Reviews

“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."—

"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 of A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the Man Booker Prize 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

Awards and Honors

  • ALA Notable Book

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