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In ‘How to Say Babylon,’ Safiya Sinclair Reckons With Her Past

“Out here I spent my early childhood in a wild state of happiness,” the Jamaican poet Safiya Sinclair writes of growing up by the water, “stretched out under the almond trees fed by brine, relishing every fish eye like precious candy, my toes dipped in the sea’s milky lapping.”

Born, in her words, “just beyond the margins of the postcard idea of Jamaica,” Sinclair has been publishing poetry about her island since she was 16. Her 2011 chapbook, Catacombs, and her 2016 poetry collection, Cannibal, deploy vivid descriptions of Jamaica’s lush terrain and native wildlife, to haunting effect. Now her new memoir animates the same land while excavating the past in prose. How to Say Babylon paints idyllic images of youthful freedom stifled too soon: When Sinclair was 5, her strict Rastafari father moved their family away from the sea—and the maternal relatives—that nourished them. The memoir chronicles Sinclair’s attempts to break free from his control—a rebellion emboldened by the seaside she first called home and by the poetry that forged her a path beyond the island. How to Say Babylon is as much a story of hard-fought survival as it is an artistic coming-of-age tale.

The book takes its name from what the Rastafari call the source of the world’s injustice: the nefarious force responsible for colonial violence, “the mental chains of Christianity, and all the evil systems of western ideology that sought to destroy the Black man.” As Sinclair grew older, her father, Djani, became more paranoid about her safety in an unholy world. Anything he deemed impure—or too Western—was shunned as evidence of Babylon infiltrating their household, threatening to turn his daughter into an “unclean woman.” Sinclair writes that Djani’s decision to move his partner and children inland, starving them of almost all contact with people outside his dominion, was an attempt to distance his flock from the influence of her mother’s worldly relatives. That first uprooting to the countryside was one of many times the family relocated within Jamaica, and Sinclair recounts these shifts with a poet’s lyricism, paying forensic attention to escalating conflicts at home.

By Safiya Sinclair

How to Say Babylon contextualizes Sinclair’s difficult personal story with insights about Jamaica’s political evolutions, its natural world, and the cultural interplay between the two. The contrast between the first environments she knew mirrors her competing recollections of the life her parents created for her. On the island first known to its Taíno inhabitants as Xaymaca, “the land of wood and water,” Sinclair experiences her parents as embodiments of these elements, each as definitively Jamaican as the other. She languishes under her father’s watchful eye, finding solace only in nature and in learning—the latter of which her mother, Esther, facilitated. But even in her classes at an expensive new private school, which Sinclair attended on scholarship, her father’s mandates for her life dictated how the world treated her: As the only Rasta student in her class, and one of only a few Black Jamaicans, she was demeaned by peers and teachers alike. The strength of Sinclair’s memoir lies partly in its refusal to assign simple, individualized meaning to hallmark coming-of-age moments, such as these scenes of childhood bullying. However cruel the wealthy (and mostly white) children might have been, their taunts reflected a larger discomfort with the Rastafari, who served as constant visual reminders of the island’s Blackness and poverty.

Even with Sinclair’s family trapped inside various hillside housing compounds, their troubles don’t erupt in isolation. Her personal revelations are inextricable from the climate that alternately foments her rebellion and soothes her aches. Sinclair’s prose etches the surrounding ecosystems, and the histories that birthed those disparate landscapes, into her intricate family portrait. In doing so, she charts a metaphorical map of the island she calls home, drawing on an extensive Caribbean literary tradition that includes the work of the prolific Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott. (Walcott, we later learn, was one of Sinclair’s early writing mentors.) When recounting the darkest chapters of her adolescence and early adulthood, Sinclair uses language that proliferates throughout this canon: The specter of death looms eerie and ever-present; she personifies the sea with near-spiritual reverence. The ghost of her would-be self, the silently nurturing Rastawoman her father tried molding her into, haunts her on land.

Without excusing either parent’s missteps, especially her father’s violence, How to Say Babylon anchors the Sinclairs’ familial discord in the inequality and isolation Djani and Esther faced beginning in their childhood. Both were born in 1962, the same year Jamaica won its independence from Britain. They met at a party 18 years later, each lonely, parentless, and searching for meaning. The young lovers soon moved to a small commune of Rastafari together, cementing their commitment to a way of life first conceptualized in the 1930s as “a nonviolent movement rooted in Black empowerment and equality.” Inspired by the Pan-Africanist vision of Marcus Garvey, and an emerging belief that a Black Messiah would come from Africa, the Jamaican street preacher Leonard Howell imagined the nascent movement as “a way to rise out of prevalent poverty through unity, through reaping the natural fruits of the land.” Djani’s fealty to Rastafari principles began with a pull toward the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, at once a paternal figure to the neglected teen and the promised Black Messiah whose 1966 arrival in Jamaica brought pious Rastas from around the country to the rainy tarmac of the Kingston airport. However corrupted Djani’s dogma became, and however corrupt Haile Selassie might have been as a ruler, it’s hard to dismiss the Rastas’ impassioned response to the figurehead credited with delivering his Black country from the control of fascist Italy.

After Djani was abandoned by his mother at 18, his only reliable source of income was playing reggae music for tourists at the glittering seaside resorts where Western patrons expected a full set of Bob Marley covers. How to Say Babylon relays the soul-crushing weight of Djani’s disappointing music career while placing his struggles within a larger pattern of colonization that led to social and economic disenfranchisement. The law that still regulates Jamaicans’ access to one of the island’s most valuable natural resources predates the nation’s independence: The Beach Control Act of Jamaica, which dictates that Jamaicans have no inherent rights to their country’s coastlines, was originally passed in 1956, while the island was still under British colonial rule. The law leaves Jamaicans with little recourse when companies buy and privatize the beaches and coastal access routes.

Decades before Sinclair would dig for hermit crabs in the sand outside her first home or sleep “under the ripened shade where the sea grapes bruised purple and delicious,” her family’s small fishing village was in danger. The construction of a nearby airport in the 1940s ushered in a wave of new hotels that advertised paradise to tourists while keeping locals on the other side of sharp fences. Despite the towering properties that surrounded it, Sinclair’s great-grandfather held on to the family’s humble seaside living quarters, in the tucked-away village named White House for the zinc-roofed home he’d painted himself when he first arrived nearly a century ago. Even as the coral reefs where he fished began to disappear, taking the family’s livelihood with them, he remained resolute. The land they own, and the life it affords them, makes her family an anomaly: “Today, no stretch of beach in Montego Bay belongs to its Black citizens except for White House,” Sinclair writes. So when she relays her mother’s belief that the sea fixes any wound, she is also telling a story of unequal healing—the coastline can’t cure those with no access to it.

Sinclair’s deep dives into Jamaican history reflect both collective grief and reverie. Memoir is a craft of relentless observation, and the author’s wondrous, studied descriptions of the world around her make How to Babylon feel expansive. Before her father’s concern for her spiritual purity metastasized into terrifying control, the family occupied a home with a yard all their own. “Exploding in a verdant spray were navel oranges and three types of mango trees, branches and leaves a-chatter with birds and insects, our whole world crammed to the teeth with possibilities,” she writes. Their kitchen windows looked out onto “the beloved lignum vitae, our national flower, which bled maroon beneath its thin bark.”

Blood, symbolic and otherwise, is invoked often in Sinclair’s work. The chapters in which she recounts her path to finding poetry feature some of the memoir’s more gruesome descriptions. If writers bleeding onto the page is something of a cliché, Sinclair revives the image by troubling the reader’s sense of what is real—and what it means to be alive. 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. Some of the most affecting passages in the book are those in which she wrestles with whether she was ready to write it in the first place. Sinclair includes a 2013 email from her graduate-school adviser: “Remember how I twist Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ into a more modern statement: ‘trauma remembered and revisited from a place of safety’? That place of safety—you may not have that yet.”

The note gave her pause, and she abandoned the fledgling memoir project at the time. How to Say Babylon directly acknowledges the immense emotional toll of its eventual writing, and the book is better for that transparency. Sinclair will never again be the young girl wading into the shallow water of her family’s fishing village, but the book still points toward the hope she found at those shores.

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