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How to Say Babylon review: Poet’s memoir of Jamaica is one of liberation

Safiya Sinclair’s strict childhood, abusive Rastafari father and radical spirit led her to find solace through writing

So the story goes, on April 21st, 1966, the prophet Haile Selassie visited Jamaica. He arrived on a stormy day by plane and was greeted by an overwhelming crowd of believers. The Ethiopian monarch, a symbol of black power and freedom, refused to walk on the red carpet rolled out for him, walking on the ground instead like a common man. Rastafarians at this time were drawn to him as they believed, unequivocally, he would be the one to liberate them from daily oppression. To them, he was God.

For poet Safiya Sinclair, this moment had a big impact on her future. In her memoir How to Say Babylon, she charts her father’s beginnings as a Rastafari and the effect it had on her family. From the onset, we see Sinclair’s obvious, childlike affection for him. “He was our god of history, god of media, and high priest all in one.”

But as time pushes on, we witness a shift in dynamic between the generations, with Sinclair’s daughterly love and admiration growing twisted and gnarled. By the age of nine, she “doubted his gospel”, writing: “A grin of mischief opened ever so slyly inside me, a seedling of a voice that said no.” At this point, Howard “Djani” Sinclair, is a temperamental and often militant Rasta, who blames his lack of agency on those around him.

The great irony here, of course, is that as Djani seeks liberation, he curates his own form of oppression on Sinclair; silencing her, and referring to her as “little gyal”. In the personal prison he creates for his family, Sinclair and her sisters spend most of their lives plotting to escape their mental and physical abuse. They, too, watch their own mother’s light dim under the weight of Rastafari culture.

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Language use plays a crucial role in this poet’s memoir, as well as the lack of autonomy women have over their identities and bodies. Though the story lags in parts, Sinclair’s soul-stirring transformation is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s multi-award-winning bestseller Educated, in the ways that she, too, found solace through writing and higher education, though continuously haunted by her father. “The scorch marks of his anger were everywhere I looked.” More than catharsis; this is a memoir of liberation.