63 pages 2 hours read

Safiya Sinclair

How to Say Babylon: A Memoir

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Published in 2023, How to Say Babylon is a memoir written by the Jamaican poet Safiya Sinclair. The memoir explores Sinclair’s strict Rastafari upbringing in Jamaica and how her love of writing helped her eventually find freedom and beauty in both Jamaica and the greater world. The book explores themes of The Power of Girlhood and Womanhood, Family Expectations and Dynamics, and Literature as a Form of Liberation. Sinclair is a published poet; therefore, her writing is rich with description, providing a lush, vivid, and haunting illustration of Jamaica and life in her strict father’s home.

How to Say Babylon has been compared to other recently acclaimed memoirs, such as Tara Westover’s Educated (2018) and Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime (2016). Like those memoirs, it was a critical success, and was named as one of the best books in 2023 by the New York Times, NPR, and Barack Obama.

This guide refers to the 2023 hardcover edition of the memoir.

Content Warning: The source material features descriptions and discussions of child sexual abuse, child abuse, physical abuse, suicide and suicidal ideation, racism, misogyny, intimate partner violence, and grooming and predatory behavior.

Summary

In Part 1 of the memoir, Sinclair details her early life in Jamaica. She lives a relatively idyllic life in her family’s beach village with her two younger siblings, Lij and Ife, and their parents, Esther and Howard. Howard is a Rastafari singer who spends most of his time singing in hotels while Esther stays home with the children. However, Howard grows increasingly concerned about the influence of the modern world—called Babylon in conservative Rastafari religion—on his young family, so he moves them out into the isolated countryside. There, Safiya’s sister Shari is born.

Howard leaves for months to pursue a music career in Japan. When his career stalls, he comes home angry and distrusting of everyone. As Safiya grows older, Howard becomes stricter, quicker to anger, and more paranoid about Babylon. Safiya and her siblings excel in school, bringing prestige to the family. Eventually, Safiya wins a scholarship to a new private school, and the family is excited about the possibilities this will open for her.

Part 2 of the memoir focuses on Sinclair’s rocky experience at her private school and the beginning of Howard’s violent abuse. Safiya is frequently ostracized at school due to her Rastafari background and the fact that she is not as rich as her other classmates. She experiences frequent teasing and begins to question her self-worth and identity. Meanwhile, Esther works more outside of the home. As Safiya finds flaws in Howard’s logic and becomes more disobedient, he grows violent toward the children. His physical assaults become more frequent over time. Through this, Safiya sees cracks in Howard’s strong Rastafari beliefs and realizes he is just a man—not a god like she previously thought. To deal with her conflicting and confusing thoughts, Safiya turns to poetry as a creative outlet. After graduating high school upset at not having any plans to go to college, she submits her poems to the Jamaica Observer. Her work is accepted, providing her a way to escape her living situation.

Sinclair’s burgeoning writing career and varied attempts to escape Howard’s home are the focus of most of Part 3. Safiya starts private lessons with the poetry editor of the Jamaica Observer, a man she nicknames the Old Poet. He supports her work, continues to publish her, and gives her access to more writing opportunities. However, when Safiya realizes that writing cannot get her out of Jamaica, she turns to modeling. While she is successful for a while—her career takes her to the United States—eventually her career stalls because of her dreadlocks, which are dictated by the Rastafari faith but make her harder to market in the modeling world. She returns to Jamaica to focus on her writing and keeps looking for ways to escape Howard. Howard, meanwhile, is now convinced of his daughter’s impurity and sinfulness; while he no longer physically assaults her, he verbally abuses her frequently.

When Safiya returns to the United States with Esther for a youth leadership conference, the trip inspires both women to become more independent. Esther confides to Safiya how bad Howard’s abuse makes her feel, leading Safiya to confront Howard. He threatens to throw her out of his home, but Esther refuses to let Safiya be thrown out. After becoming sick, Safiya cuts off her dreadlocks and gets her hair chemically straightened, which leads Howard to not speak to her for a year.

Part 4 covers Safiya’s life abroad and her reconciliation with her father. When Ife is accepted to a high school in the United States, she cuts her dreadlocks off before leaving. Lij also leaves home to attend the University of the West Indies. Eventually, Safiya finds the money to attend Bennington College in Vermont. Esther receives a 10-year visa and frequently travels abroad, leaving Howard and Shari at home. After finding freedom in the United States, Esther also cuts off her dreadlocks and ends her relationship with Howard.

After college, when Safiya returns to Jamaica briefly while waiting to hear from graduate schools, she and Howard get into a violent altercation that ends with Howard attempting to kill her. At the University of Virginia’s MFA program, her graduate studies are marred by nightmares about her father. Eventually, following the birth of Lij’s daughter and time apart, Howard and Safiya tenuously reconcile. Howard has softened and realizes the damage he did to his family. The two bond at one of Safiya’s poetry readings in Jamaica, and she finds the courage to write her memoir.

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