It’s not unusual for an autobiography to chart a person’s passage from rags to riches, ignorance to enlightenment, or bondage to freedom. It is unusual to find one as powerful and disturbing as Safiya Sinclair’s debut memoir, “How to Say Babylon,” which has already drawn comparisons to Tara Westover’s “Educated” and Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club.”
Sinclair, an award-winning poet who teaches creative writing at Arizona State University, grew up in extreme poverty in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in the shadow of the luxury hotels that cater to wealthy tourists. Her father, a reggae musician, was a militant follower of a strict Rastafari sect. Her mother, selfless, loving and subservient to her father, was Safiya’s lifeline, introducing her at a young age to poetry, which became her ticket out.
Sinclair writes of a chaotic yet magical childhood, moving constantly but always surrounded by lush tropical forests and broad vistas of sea and sky, which later gave her the sounds and imagery of her poems. “It was here, on our verdant hillside, that my mother first taught me the poetry of greenery. She showed me how to suckle language from each bloom.”
As a girl, she revered her father, nodding “Yes, Daddy,” whenever he delivered one of his endless rants about the evils of Babylon — Rasta shorthand for the white, western, Christian world — but her childhood idyll ended when she started menstruating and he deemed her unclean.
Eventually, this estrangement led her to question all the tenets of her fundamentalist upbringing, a process that was accelerated when she discovered that her sanctimonious father indulged in porn and cheated on her mother. School was her escape. She graduated high school at 15, published her first poem at 16, and found important mentors including the Nobel Prize-winning Caribbean poet Derek Walcott.
Ultimately, she was strong enough to break free of her father’s tyrannical grip, leading the way for her long-suffering mother and three siblings to do the same. Yet in something of a twist, she refused to sever ties with him completely, even thanking him for “instilling this steadfast rebel in me.”
Once she left home for college in America — the beating heart of Babylon — she began to understand how centuries of colonialism and slavery led to the extreme separatist beliefs of the repressive cult she was raised in. Though she ended up cutting off her dreadlocks, a symbol of Rasta life, she channeled her father’s rage at the injustices of Babylon into her own shimmering tapestries of words.