"How to Say Babylon" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
“How to Say Babylon” by poet Safiya Sinclair is a debut memoir of her years growing up in a Rastafari household in Jamaica from 1984 to 2006. In 2006, she moved to the United States to attend college. Safiya has a doctorate in Literature and Creative Writing and teaches at Arizona University. Her poetry book, “Cannibal,” was a 2017 American Library Association Book of the Year.
Safiya's father, Howard “Djani” Sinclair, was a militant Rastafarian who sought to control his three daughters by alienating them as much as possible from society. At school, they could have no friends. Djani was frantic that his four children would abandon their strict Rastafarian upbringing.
Djani also was a reggae musician who performed at the luxurious hotels that line the coastal roads of Jamaica, situated on land that the government stole from Rasatafarians and other poor black landowners in 1963.
The Sinclairs moved every other year to poorer housing units far into the hills because of poverty and for the isolation the hills afforded the family.
Safiya was raised believing that she was unclean because she was a girl. Her mother, while kind and loving, was submissive to her husband. Safiya was raised with the religion’s tenets of being close to nature, which included not combing or cutting one’s hair.
Safiya's early years, until age 8, were spent joyously among the grandeur of the Jamaican countryside. Her mother provided supplemental education that helped Safiya excel in her formal schooling.
When Safiya’s father lost a lucrative singing contract, things changed. Her father’s hatred of all things “Babylon,” which included Christianity western ideology, and colonialism, gave him an obsessive fear that his children would be exposed to the corruption of the world. He began physically and mentally abusing his children to try to control them. The abuse lasted for years.
Safiya began writing poems at an early age as an outlet from her virtual home prison. With her mother’s help, Safiya began sending poems to a Jamaican newspaper. They were often published, and she began winning awards for her work. American universities offered her scholarships, but for years the money was never enough to cover all of her expenses. Eventually, her mother saved enough to help finance Saifya’s education abroad.
Before Safiya left for the United States in her mid-20s, she fled her home to live with her brother following a traumatic night of her father’s abuse.
Shortly after that, Safiya cut off her dreadlocks, a symbolic act that was a literal and figurative rejection of her father and the Rastafarian culture. (The cover of the book depicts scissors being used to cut off a piece of a dreadlock; a striking image.)
I was impressed by the honesty of this book, and by the beautiful images of the Jamaican countryside that only a poet could invoke. This book is so much more than a memoir; it is also a coming-of-age story, a testimony to the power of education, a portrait of resilience, and a harsh reminder of the disastrous effects of racism.
Safiya Sinclair returned to Jamaica in 2018 as a featured speaker at the biggest literary festival in the Caribbean.