Safiya Sinclair liberates herself in 'How to Say Babylon'

A photo of an author and a book cover.
Poet Safiya Sinclair reflects on her strict Rastafari upbringing and how she eventually broke free in her new memoir, "How to Say Babylon."
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan, cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster

To the strict Rastafari father of Jamaican poet Safiya Sinclair, Babylon was not just an ancient city. It was a symbol for corruption, for wickedness, for decadence and depravity. And it was everywhere.

So he kept his family tightly controlled, separate from outside influences that could contaminate.

It was in that environment that Sinclair first grew and then stifled. Her father’s Rastafari faith was all-encompassing. While her mother taught her the music of nature and encouraged her to read, her father became obsessed with keeping his daughters pure. So they had few friends or hobbies, outside of schoolwork. Sinclair dreaded adolescence, when she knew menstruation would make her unclean. She grudgingly kept her dreadlocks — a symbol of Rastafari piety — and chafed under her father’s gospel that good Rasta women are submissive and quiet.

But Sinclair found her voice in poetry. In her new memoir, “How to Say Babylon,” Sinclair recounts her journey from a subdued and sheltered daughter into a strong and self-assertive woman.

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This week on Big Book and Bold Ideas, Sinclair joined host Kerri Miller to talk about the perils of fundamentalism and patriarchy, in all its forms, and how she wrote a memoir about her childhood that both honors her family and her own truth.

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