'How to Say Babylon' centers on resisting patriarchy and colonialization
As the story goes, on April 21, 1966, God visited the island of Jamaica. He arrived on a stormy day by plane — on a large white Ethiopian airliner emblazoned with the Lion of Judah.
In fact, it was 74-year-old Haile Selassie who got off that plane, in utter disbelief that these people — Rastas — were all there for him. And even more disquieting, that they believed him to be a god.
Rastafarians lived shackled lives in Jamaica due to poverty and government and societal marginalization — and they were drawn to this man they believed would liberate them from daily oppression. To them, he was bringing hope for respect and opportunity.
For poet Safiya Sinclair, this moment had a big impact on the future. In her memoir How to Say Babylon, Sinclair charts her father's beginnings as a Rasta, a life that shaped hers, for better or worse. How to Say Babylon follows Sinclair's journey from a scared and sheltered Rasta girl to a strong and self-assertive woman, exploring just how poetry became her savior.
From the onset, we see Sinclair's admiration and love for her father, who is a god-like presence in her life as a child. But over the years, we see a daughter's love and admiration for her father become complex and less sure. Sinclair's father, Howard "Djani" Sinclair, is a frustrated, temperamental reggae singer and strict, often militant Rasta. As a young man, he was abandoned by his own mother and spurned by society at every turn.
Rastafari's ideologies helped fuel his rage for the world and justify the control he imposed on his own family. He is consumed with his daughters' purity and livity. He's adamant that the outside world — Babylon — is waiting and ready to corrupt his wife and daughters because their womanhood makes them weak and therefore susceptible to bad influence. Their role is to obey and remain pure. They were not allowed to have any friends, no personal interests — outside of schoolwork — no other figurehead besides him, and most importantly, no opinions of their own.
A Rastaman seeking liberty and respect for himself, he created a personal prison for his family, where Sinclair and her sisters spent most of their lives plotting to escape their mental and physical abuse. Sinclair also watches as their own mother's light dims and her body physically strains under the weight of being a Rastaman's woman. If this was the life of a Rasta woman, she wanted no part of it.
This memoir is a melodious wave of memories and interrogations that illustrates Sinclair's skill as both a poet and a storyteller.
Getting through How to Say Babylon can be a challenge in some areas, where the story lags. But the juice is worth the squeeze. Sinclair is a wonderful writer. The magical way she strings sentences together, on its own, is reason enough to indulge in this memoir 10 years in the making. Her writing conjures sharp visuals like, "... I wanted all men to see the cruel world, their deeds burned to ash on my tongue." And as she writes, "A blade-edge of dread nicked at my throat," I reach for my own. Her writing is visceral and every hurt, hit, and harrowing memory burrows deep within the blood while reading. Language use plays a crucial role in this memoir — and the lack of autonomy women have over their identities, over their bodies, is prevalent throughout.
Halfway through the book, Sinclair paints a poignant picture of what many women can recognize in their daily lives simply by walking down the street, especially in the Caribbean. "Pssst....Catty. Mampy. Matey. Wifey....Heffa....Babes....Sketel....Rasta Gyal....Jezebel. And Daugther," all names for women as a marker for how many see them. In fact, when Sinclair's own father wants to make her feel small, insignificant, and worthless, he refers to her as "little gyal." The names women are called — and by extension the tone in which they are called — is language meant to control and in some cases, disparage them. Sinclair's use of poetic language, historical references, magical realism, and riveting visuals, produces a portrait of women's struggle to create their own identities in a society where men — from fatherhood to husbandhood — build religious, legal, and social structures to shape women into what they want them to be.
The irony of Sinclair's childhood is that her father embraced Rastafari in search of liberation and in turn imprisons her and their family with his own form of oppression. Throughout the memoir, we see the many ways words show up and shape Sinclair. In many cases words were weapons but, in the end, she turned them into her glory. There were numerous attempts to silence her, but Safiya Sinclair came out on the other side, victorious against patriarchy and colonialization; roaring from the hills like the lioness that she is.
Keishel Williams is a Trinidadian American book reviewer, arts & culture writer, and editor.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.