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How To Say Babylon

Safiya Sinclair 

4th Estate (2023)

Reviewed by Franklin Nelson


‘Listen to me. I am the man of the house, and you are just a girl… What goes on in this house is my business. Don’t ever question the I.’ As readers, coming across this stream of assertions and instructions about halfway through How To Say Babylon, we have to give thanks that Safiya Sinclair ultimately disobeys her father. The reason her story of her life exists is because she did not listen to him. She did ‘question the I’.

This memoir, told in vivid, crystal-clear prose, even as it repeatedly dredges up pain, tracks the domestic history of violence that resulted from Sinclair’s father’s belief in a militant strand of Rastafari – the Afrocentric religious movement that originated in Jamaica in the 1930s. With Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, as his redeemer, this dreadlocked aspiring musician railed against ‘Babylon’, or the forces of western oppression and corruption. 

For Sinclair, her three younger siblings and her mother (described as a ‘natural nurturer’), that meant constant curbs on where they could go and what they could do, what to wear and what to eat. It also meant penalties, in the form of verbal and physical abuse, if the man of the house, ‘the god of our whole dominion’, was not obeyed.

To begin with, Sinclair’s father nicknames her ‘Budgie’. But in an indication of her fall from grace, we are by the book’s end reading a chapter entitled ‘Jezebel’. For, top of the class at school and passing into adolescence against a backdrop of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, Sinclair becomes increasingly sceptical of her father’s rule. She also realises what future lies ahead for her: that of a Rasta woman, who ‘cooked and cleaned and demurred to her man, bringing girlchild after girlchild into this world who cooked and cleaned and demurred to her man’. In a characteristic inversion of standard English, demur, or disagree with, being used in the sense of to defer to.

And so, Sinclair decides that she must ‘chop [that woman] down’. She makes new clothes, visits America and, in a signally rebellious act, cuts off the dreadlocks she has worn for a decade. Meantime, she has discovered writing as an outlet, staying up into the early hours to read Sylvia Plath on the family’s newly acquired computer. She also publishes poems in local newspapers and wins the attention of the ‘Old Poet’ as a mentor. In regular sessions in his book-lined study, this man schools her in scansion and meter. And, in a disturbing scene, ultimately tries to take advantage. 

Lines by the African American poet Lucille Clifton serve as a fitting epigraph to the final section of the memoir: ‘born in babylon / both nonwhite and woman / what did i see to be except myself?’ Sinclair, now based in the US from which she feels estranged, is triggered by the birth of a niece to return to Jamaica and to reconcile with her father. In spite of her struggles, it is clear that she has claimed herself, her past and her talent for the future. After giving a well-received reading at Jamaica’s Calabash literary festival, her father is the first to come over to her to say – ‘I’m listening. And I hear you.’