How to Say Babylon

A Memoir

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Pub Date Oct 03 2023 | Archive Date Oct 31 2023


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.
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, ...

Advance Praise

“Dazzling. Potent. Vital. A light shining on the path of self-deliverance.” -Tara Westover, author of Educated

"In this exquisitely courageous memoir, Safiya Sinclair achieves remarkable balances: her writing is sometimes brutal but always elegant; her story is devastating but recounted without self-pity; her insight into the world in which she grew up is matched by insight about the larger world she now occupies. Though she experienced trauma and never euphemizes it, she views everyone who hurt her with Ghandi-like compassion. She brings the world’s injustices into vivid focus, sometimes with considerable outrage, but always with radical clarity. Her training as a poet informs the radiant prose, but never distracts from her true purpose: to lay the groundwork for a better and more humane way of living that applies to Rastas, other Jamaicans, Black Americans, and all the rest of us. This is book is shocking not only for the story it tells, but also for its ability to level accusations and yet sustain a profound generosity about life itself." -Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree

“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 Raastafari 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, author of Memorial Dive

“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, Sinclair has gorgeously and lovingly assembled a story with radiant transformative power. I couldn’t put it down.” -Nadia Owusu, author of Aftershocks: A Memoir

"When a gifted poet applies her hand to prose, magical, even revelatory things can result. Happily, this is the case with Safiya Sinclair. In this lyrical, startling, and magnetic memoir, 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

“Dazzling. Potent. Vital. A light shining on the path of self-deliverance.” -Tara Westover, author of Educated

"In this exquisitely courageous memoir, Safiya Sinclair achieves remarkable balances: her...

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Featured Reviews

When reading How to Say Babylon, I immediately thought of Educated and books such as When the World Didn’t End. Safiya Sinclair opens readers to the world of Rasta and the way that she grew up in a strict Rasta home. We are able to see the ways that these experiences affected Safiya and how it has shaped her into who she is today.

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In her young becoming Sinclair challenges her stern father's deep belief, finding and redefining meaning for herself through poetry. An art of constraint, where limitations may unlock an explorative freedom, it is no wonder that Sinclair would find in poems a different way to transcend. The specificity with which Sinclair illustrates her young life - - in Jamaica's landscape, in the sounds of music and language of family - - is an act of literary generosity. 'How to Say Babylon' never compromises lyricism for depth. This is a tale of struggles, both personal and cultural, but it is beautifully told.

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