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How To Say Babylon: A Jamaican Memoir

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How To Say Babylon: A Jamaican Memoir by Safiya Sinclair

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  • Women's Prize for Non-Fiction Longlist

By Safiya Sinclair

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LONGLISTED FOR THE 2024 WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION

‘Dazzling. Potent. Vital’ TARA WESTOVER ‘To read it is to believe that words can save’ MARLON JAMES ‘I adored this book … Unforgettable, heartbreaking and heartwarming’ ELIF SHAFAK An extraordinary and inspiring memoir of family, education and resilience, from award-winning poet Safiya Sinclair. There was more than one way to be lost, more than one way to be saved. Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where luxury hotels line pristine white sand beaches, Safiya Sinclair grew up guarding herself against an ever-present threat. Her father, a volatile reggae musician and strict believer in a militant sect of Rastafari, railed against Babylon, the corrupting influence of the immoral Western world just beyond their gate. To protect the purity of the women in their family he forbade almost everything: nowhere but home and school, no friends but this family and no future but this path. Her mother did what she could to bring joy to her children with books and poetry. But as Safiya’s imagination reached beyond its restrictive borders, her burgeoning independence brought with it ever greater clashes with her father. Soon she realised that if she was to live at all, she had to find some way to leave home. But how? In seeking to understand the past of her family, Safiya Sinclair takes readers inside a world that is little understood by those outside it and offers an astonishing personal reckoning. How to Say Babylon is an unforgettable story of a young woman’s determination to live life on her own terms. ‘Electrifying’ Observer ‘A story about hope, imagination and resilience’ Guardian ‘An essential memoir’ Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing ‘Heart-warming, tender and fierce’ Lily Dunn, author of Sins of My Father ‘One of the most gut-wrenching, soul-stirring, electrifying memoirs I’ve ever read’ Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Here Comes the Sun ‘Full of courage and poetry … Has the power of truth telling’ Monique Roffey, author of The Mermaid of Black Conch ‘Atmospheric and completely absorbing, this is a fascinating story lushly told’ Diana Evans, author of A House for Alice ‘Sinclair possesses a rare gift … Every sentence sings’ Imani Perry, author of South to America

Reviews

02 Jun 2024

Courtly42

Read with Yeovil shadow reviewed this book as a group, here are their thoughts:
Jo Cox - What a great book! It was an enthralling read covering many injustices, very well written with poetic rudiments. Safiya’s emotional and physical roller-coaster life story starts with a glimpse of the Rastafarian’s and her parent’s history, the foundation of her upbringing. Her only hope to escape poverty and home, to be her own person, was through the power of books that gave her a love of poetry and education. Definitely a prize winner for me, very enlightening and humbling. A great deal of thought has gone into the structural and composition of this memoir. Even though it is heartbreaking in parts, definitely a ‘must be read’ book.
Chris Woodgate
I am in awe of Safiya. How she endured such mental and physical abuse, remained true to herself and emerged to write such a beautiful book.
The writing is so lyrical, she took me with her to the lush and vibrant Jamaica that she grew up in.
I have learnt so much of Rastafari, this book opened my eyes to a religion I knew so little about and how the Rasta men changed the rules to suit themselves.
The significance of their dreadlocks hit me when her mother cut hers. The years of her life, her history, all that had happened since she was 19, were all bound up in them. They were part of her.
As much as I tried to find redeeming features in her father’s behaviour I couldn’t. I find it hard to believe that he truly loved his family. He was certainly in love with the idea of a close knit family, dependent on him, but not the individuals when they didn’t do exactly what he wanted. Even the reconciliation was because he had no one left at home to try to bend to the ideals he made up; he was alone. I didn’t feel he was actually sorry about how he had treated them. Perhaps being abandoned by his mother made him incapable of really loving someone.


Elaine Sharp

A memoir by a poet is an extraordinary thing, fitting neither into biography nor verse but filled with the techniques and references that only a poet would employ.
At times, I wanted more of the actual story of Safiya’s life rather than the abstract and ephemeral allusions. However I was bowled over by her descriptions and the beauty of her writing.
Some of the allusions reminded me of Monique Roffe and I wondered about the literary heritage of the Caribbean and the huge influence of that environment on the writing of its people.
Sinclair never really attempts to fill in all the gaps concerning her Father and indeed her Mother, we only get glimpses of what actually happens as she takes herself off into the world of her inner self.
Her Mother is an extraordinary facilitator of her children, managing to bring them all up as talented and capable adults despite her belief in and domination by Djani. Her awakening to the truth of Babylon in America is truly extraordinary. This is matched by Safiya’s growing understanding of her Father’s truths about that racially divided nation.
Ultimately Djani is exposed as a domestic despot; a man desperate for control who has no power at all, a classic bully who seeks to dominate his family in the absence of any real control of his world. The futility of this is exposed when it is clear that although he might temporarily control their bodies, he never could control their minds.
Sinclair uses examples of women in classical literature, comparing their experiences to hers.
Obviously there are comparisons to be made with women across the world living under oppression.

Jane Jones
A fascinating read, informative on the history of Rastafarianism in Jamaica and if it hadn’t been true, almost a novel about family mental abuse.
How people of African descent are treated in a white western world stirs up so much resentment and affects them so deeply centuries after their ancestors were removed from Africa
As for most women and still today, education is the way out to live in a man’s world

Jennie Slade
I found the book very difficult to get into, I didn’t enjoy the first few chapters, but as I continued with the book I realised their relevance. I found the book very moving, so sad in places, but ended it with a great sense of powerful women, their  greatness & strength. This was displayed in very different ways, the mother who at times seemed to ignore the treatment of her children, was silently absorbing more than realised & was quietly & cleverly helping her children achieve. Safiya showed amazing strength, not learnt from example but from within her. Even the youngest daughter showed she was her own person by not reconnecting with her father, another display of strength to do what was right for her. I found the book very enlightening, I didn’t have an understanding of life in Jamaica for those following Rastafari, reality quite different to my perceptions.
The interview was really useful in forming my later opinions of the book. 
I think it is amazing & so beneficial Safiya has written the book. It has given her the chance to discuss her treatment growing up & how it affected her, with the person responsible.  A very healing process although incredibly challenging,  but life can then move forward with the feeling of forgiveness, acceptance & love, reassurance for the next generation 

- Mark Rudd

If this book hadn't been biographical, I would have thought Safina too talented and repressed to be true. She is a truly amazing lady.
My cousin by marriage was married to a Rastafarian, and I recall she was in fear of her life, if he found out she was planning to leave him and come to England with her 4 children. I understand her story much better now.
Rastafarianism has an "old testament" feel to their view of women, very similar to middle eastern religions. We are fortunate that those days are behind us for the majority of people in this country, but I fear it may be growing in certain sectors.

Mandy Burgess
What a treat! I loved this book almost from the first page and was held captivated by the beautiful descriptions of Jamaica and by the people we meet.  I was filled with both outrage at and sympathy for Safiya's father at different times in the book.  And although I found Safiya's mother very warm and likeable, she was also infuriating!  It was really interesting too to learn something about Rastafarianism(?).    For me this was a hugely enjoyable read, made all the more powerful because of being about real lives.

Sue Seeley
I found myself frequently moved to intense emotion while reading this extraordinary memoir; a lot of anger at how Safiya and her family were treated by many of the (often racist) people around them, and by her violent and controlling father in particular. This was coupled with admiration and respect for the determination, creative talent, intelligence and sheer hard work which enabled her to escape into a fulfilling life. Safiya's urge to write, when she was 'heavy with poems' is the perfect description of creativity being, for those blessed (or cursed) with it, a physical need.

This is a complex, multi-layered narrative, full of insights about Rastafari and its history and way of life but also courageously exploring the most personal impacts of this environment on a young woman growing up and not accepting the restrictions placed on her.

Safiya Sinclair's writing is at times full of lyrical beauty; she is truly a poet. Her description of the glorious island of Jamaica stimulates the imaginative senses and clearly expresses her love of her home. Her love for her family also shines throughout the memoir and in spite of her father's sometimes very abusive behaviour, the relationship Safiya has with him is also full of yearning for love. There is great truth and honesty in this depiction of how damaging but complicated such a relationship can be.

The use of visual imagery, like snapshots in an album, is a strong and vivid way of connecting memories, metaphorical and mythical allusions and takes the narrative from the specific individual to the universal, especially with reference to racism and the oppression of women.

When Safiya and her father at last find some peace and reconciliation through the redemptive power of words and poetry it evoked a feeling like a closing of a circle and a sense of rightness, like the end of a good poem.

Mark Freeman
From the opening paragraph one realises that one is in the hands of a poet and that this will be a memoir which will require careful and close reading. The shaping of the language and the structuring of the life story are both wrought with great care. However, this does not militate against the narrative flow and the reader is drawn through this account of an extraordinary life.
The use of patois throughout did not hinder understanding, a considerable achievement. Indeed, it brought a richness and authenticity to the text.
Clearly, a lot of research went into the writing, especially in the history of Rastafari (about much of which I was ignorant) yet it is embedded into the narrative with care and craft, evading the trap of regurgitating undigestible exposition.
Despite the fullness of the account, there are areas, such as the author’s sexual proclivities, which are scarcely addressed and makes one wonder what else might have been excised.
It is telling that the cover bears an encomium from Tara Westover, whose memoir likewise recounts the travails of a preternaturally intelligent and strong-willed daughter rebelling against a father who imposes his extreme authority on his family.
Overall, an original and moving account of a life.
Tracey Gemmell
Firstly, many thanks to Read With Yeovil, Ms Sinclair, and Women’s Prize for the opportunity to read How to Say Babylon.
A worthwhile read changes your worldview in some way. How to Say Babylon challenged my views of Jamaica, Rastafari culture, even Bob Marley. Will I ever again sway to reggae, pina colada in hand, without returning to Ms Sinclair’s words? Doubtful. Ms Sinclair has written a powerful commentary, yet with such gorgeous prose, even if you did not know she was a poet, you would guess it.
For me, it is the intense juxtapositions throughout the book that prove the page turners. We witness mother and father fight, passively and overtly, for the souls of their children. Mother is both saviour and sinner. She instils a love of literature, which proves to be the tool by which the children escape their father’s expectations. Yet, she does not always protect her children from their father.
The father is so adamantly opposed to Western culture yet sings for tourists in the hotels after failing to find musical success in Japan. He gets to participate in all he struggles to keep his children away from. He gets to womanize while demanding purity. If he wanted better for his children, it was an interesting way to model it.
As I contemplate the story days after finishing reading, it is the father’s dominate figure that takes up most head space. I felt he overshadowed Ms Sinclair. Maybe that’s the point. Ms Sinclair’s alternating attraction and repulsion towards him continues to the very last pages. I found myself hoping for a complete break from him, yet the poem she reads (the only complete poem included in the book) is about/for him. Her need to be his loved daughter is so strong, even after so much abuse, I felt somewhat disappointed. I didn’t feel the final interactions, as stated on the page, earned him the forgiveness Ms Sinclair gave.
Final thought: we get snippets of the poem Silver in the text but little else of Ms Sinclair’s poems. Their presence would have pathed the way for me to better comprehend the accolades achieved at such a young age; of how Ms Sinclair had been plucked from the backwaters to the national stage in Jamaica and beyond. This exclusion of what gives her the platform to write a memoir seems remiss and is the reason for the 4/5 star rating. However, I highly recommend How to Say Babylon. It’s a beautifully written view of Ms Sinclair’s world, a world I knew so little about. I will carry it with me for a long time.

Nikki May
Nikki May, thoughts on How To Say Babylon 
In a word: Breathless.
It's a (very) particular story but, sadly, it's universal too. The cruel oppression of women, particularly black women, is commonplace. Sinclair's resilience – and aptitude for forgiveness - is so remarkable that this memoir reads more like fiction. It made me treasure my gift of dual citizenship. Without my British passport, I wouldn't have been able to 'run away' from home and medical school. It read at times like a thriller, I learned a lot (I knew nothing about Rastas other than loving Bob Marley and the whole concept of Babylon was new to me). I shook my head often. A brilliant but disturbing read.

Elaine Buckley
This amazing memoir manages to give a balanced view of Rastafarian beliefs and life in Jamaica. Both were previously unknown to me. 
Having a father who tried to force her into being a perfect daughter she inwardly said No and struggled to become the woman she feels she needs to be. I’m glad she had a mother who showed her the beauty in the world and secretly fostered her creativity. 
The isolation and stifling childhood, along with the violence she has to endure are gradually overcome as she finds the strength to speak with her own voice. 
This book really affected me and gave an insight into the kind of cruelty that can occur within families.
The book ends with more understanding and hope for the future. 

Holly Brinsford
An interesting read into one persons experience of growing up in Jamaica under the rule of her all forum father. I could tell from the way the book was written the author has a background in poetry and understanding of foreshadowing. I found the book addictive and I read in one evening. I believe this memoir is of a high standard and worthy to of made the Women’s Prize shortlist nominations. The narrative is all very readable and straightforward. I didn’t find any other subjects covered too difficult or particularly distressing, the amazing imagery makes this book a very powerful story of hope and resilience. I knew very little of Rastafarians and this has certainly opened my eyes and made me want to learn more.

James Mornement
A truly remarkable & open book.It is not easy to go through in public the troubles & traumas which Safiya Sinclair endured &to a large extent overcame by sheer strength of will & courage & to achieve all that she has achieved.A fascinating book which reveals in outline what life was like for so many families in the West Indies.
The book is inevitably sad but shows what courage & strength of will can achieve & all this covered by a blanket of kindness.
A very courageous & well written book.

- Biddy Martin

Rasifarianism for me has always been Bob Marley, dreadlocks and colourful crocheted hats - I knew nothing of the rigid and total lifestyle. Howard Sinclair was a militant rasti and probably increasingly unhinged in his strict adherence to the way of life - it is so sad to read of Safiya’s gradual realisation of the hypocrisy and her shedding of the fetters and her breaking free of her repressive upbringing - an upbringing of injustice and disparity. There is so much to learn in this memoir and it is so very beautifully written . What an amazing woman has come out if it.

- Nikki Copleston
Such a moving memoir, its language so lyrical and yet so powerful. I found it enlightening, teaching me so much about Rastafari. What a brave and insightful account Sinclair has written, after so many years of being subjected to her father’s beliefs and her mother’s collusion in them. One can only admire the way in which she broke away and somehow made peace with her father and, especially, with the child she used to be. A poet’s memoir in every sense.

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