HOW TO SAY BABYLON: A Memoir, by Safiya Sinclair
The unclean woman. It’s an archetype Safiya Sinclair ponders when she’s 5, terrified of becoming one and perhaps already sensing the inevitability. We are in a Jamaican fishing village called White House where Sinclair’s young parents, Djani and Esther, nurture a dream: to build a virtuous Rastafari family amid the encroaching stains of British colonial history and Western corruption.
According to the thunderous, ever-sermonizing Djani, his sister-in-law, Sinclair’s beloved Auntie Audrey, epitomizes the ultimate Jezebel. Gold earrings dangle from her pierced ears, bare legs protrude from jean shorts, chemical relaxers smooth her hair, and she douses any embers of goodness by eating meat and drinking rum. In his words, Auntie Audrey is a “baldhead,” an “instrument of Babylon.” When Sinclair is 5, Djani packs up his brood for an apartment in Montego Bay, far from the home they previously shared with Esther’s family; and Auntie Audrey heads to “Foreign” — what they call the United States — a place that looms over Sinclair’s financially strapped youth with foreboding promise.
Young Sinclair is right to fear her father’s punishments and her own body’s unfolding vagaries. Menstruation — and thus the old archetype of the unclean woman — lurks on the horizon, a guaranteed monthly impurity according to Rastafari strictures, like an auto-renewing subscription to one’s own corruption. Sinclair starts to feel the seedlings of rebellion, curious to wade into a forbidden ocean: “I was skeptical. I doubted his gospel,” she writes of her father. “I touched the flame simply because it was burning.”
“How to Say Babylon” is Sinclair’s breathless, scorching memoir of a girlhood spent becoming the perfect Rasta daughter and an adolescence spent becoming one of Jamaica’s most promising young poets. For its sheer lusciousness of prose, the book’s a banquet. Sinclair’s Montego Bay drips with tender sensuality and complexity that seduces you like a fresh wound to slow pokes and feels. In her backyard, “the Bombay mangoes grew bigger than all our fists put together.” Her father’s dreadlocks form “a curtain of vines down his shoulders.” When Sinclair drives her foot over a rusty nail after a classmate rejects her friendship, Esther rubs her hands together to ignite a “bronze fire in her palms,” holding them to Sinclair’s tender skin. The buoyant patois of her parents’ banter offers staccato levity. “You overstand?” her dad asks after yet another sermon, taking “every linguistic opportunity to upend Babylon’s language.”
“How to Say Babylon” is a gripping tale of fundamentalism and the light of rebellion piercing through its cracks. Critiques of colonial and patriarchal violence weave throughout, made all the more scathing by Sinclair’s patient understatement. At the book’s core, though, is a personal tale of two artists separated by a chasm. Sinclair is a budding poet whose mother whispers Rudyard Kipling’s “If” into her ear. Her father is a gifted musician who sings for Jah, belting original reggae songs “forecasting the impending peril of Black people.” But their shared insistence that art is a sword of truth hardly fosters mutual understanding between father and daughter. Only the stock roles of household “godhead” and obedient daughter can sustain any harmony in the home.
As a teenager, Djani tasted success as the heartthrob lead singer of the band Future Wind. Now, after the group’s dissolution, he supports his family by performing for tourists at the palatial resorts devouring Jamaica’s coastline. It’s a dispiriting hustle for a man who believes reggae is a religious calling. Year after year, six nights a week, Djani plays for steak-eating, daiquiri-guzzling tourists, perfecting the same Bob Marley hits into “a golden spear, thrown treacherous into the crowd.”
Dark moods cloak him when he returns home. Sermons become compulsory. After a major record deal falls apart, Djani’s tempers escalate to hurricanes, triggered by unexpected nothings. He belts his three children for eating unripe cherries off a tree (“So you think I man have money for doctor or hospital bill?”), then hangs the belt on a wall like artwork. His tempests of discipline leave Sinclair and her younger siblings stunned: “We simply deserted the bruised husks of ourselves.” Beltings provide Djani the release that music no longer can. “The morning after his worst violence,” Sinclair writes, “my father had bounded out of bed featherweight and freed, alight with his best mood in months.” Meanwhile, Esther lights spliffs and vanishes into silence.
Under Djani’s watchful eye, the gates and doors of home remain locked. Not even Rasta bredren and sistren may visit and pollute the family’s righteousness. Forced into isolation with their intellectually gifted mother, the Sinclair kids grow into something special. They win spelling bees and skip grades and outscore the entire Caribbean on standardized tests. Sinclair has an abundance of reading time and her imagination’s ecosystem thrives in a closed terrarium. It’s Sinclair and Rudyard Kipling, Sinclair and the Encyclopaedia Britannica stolen from the library, Sinclair and Encarta on a secondhand desktop. She reads the dictionary cover to cover, “gathering the meaning and root of each unknown word, gems clinking in my heavy sack.” I recalled the poet Piri Thomas’s memoir, “Down These Mean Streets,” the seven years he spent in prison, a bleak monastic study hall where he discovered literature’s escape hatch. I remembered how the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka survived solitary confinement by writing poems on toilet paper. Still, Sinclair’s a child. Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath may help her intellect take flight, but she laments “the neon scream of my teens passing me by in my bedroom.”
Those gates do have keys, though. When Djani’s in Japan recording an album or away performing at the Hedonism II resort, Sinclair’s world expands as if by natural law. Reciting William Blake’s “The Tyger” from memory, she scores a full ride to a wealthy high school and encounters her first white peers and teachers. There, Sinclair’s cultural isolation and shame grow new contours of class and race consciousness. Esther is the willing accomplice who mails her daughter’s first poems to The Jamaica Observer. Sinclair recounts the resulting publication, and her editor’s mentorship, with exuberance. “The Old Poet spoke like a character from a classic novel and had a fixed and brilliant opinion on everything, including me.”
While the memoir’s conclusion explodes with urgency, it lacks Sinclair’s slow-brewed sagacity. History catches up with her, and not enough years have passed for wisdom to surface. I was startled by the finale — was all her searing testimony in service of Djani’s redemption? I had to put the book down, walk away. With a bit of distance, I came to feel that the center of this book was its matriarch. Despite her obedient silences, her rare and shocking betrayals of Sinclair’s safety, Esther quietly instigates tectonic shifts in her children’s lives. Her motherly accomplishments are impressive, but it’s her decisive redirection of her own path that illuminates the long arc of self-liberation.
After the mass mutiny of the accomplished Sinclair siblings, after their compulsory locks are shorn and the family unit unravels, Esther models her sudden independence, in part, after her sister Audrey, who drives, orders takeout and casually questions her husband in conversation. We don’t hear much about Esther beyond that. As it should be. Sinclair can craft a luscious sentence, but her silence at her mother’s escape feels like narrative grace. Esther’s life, at last, belongs to her.
HOW TO SAY BABYLON: A Memoir | By Safiya Sinclair | 335 pp. | 37 Ink | $28.99
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