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How To Say Babylon - Shelf Interest Book Club Review

Black hands holding a copy of "How To Say Babylon: a Jamaican memoir" with Safiya Sinclair (the author), a black woman with long, black straight hair, signing another copy of the book in the background.
Safiya Sinclair signed a copy of my book at Brixton library

How To Say Babylon: a Jamaican Memoir by Safiya Sinclair is so far our highest rated book pick. Safiya Sinclair is a walking well of diverse areas of knowledge and a poet by nature and nurture. This translates into how well her writing translates on the page.

This memoir documents the early life experiences of Safiya Sinclair, her family, and the history and the belief system of Rastafari in the face of Jamaica’s colonial legacy. As a direct response to Jamaica’s exploitation and global antiblackness, Rastafari is a belief system that grew to be empowering of the black man amongst many Jamaicans. However, with a majority Christian population and a government that has a low tolerance for resistance, Rastafarian people have been a target of stigma, harassment and even massacres. We watch how this dynamic impacts Safiya’s father to fiercely protect his children from the evils of Babylon and shines pride into their blackness, whilst simultaneously isolating and becoming their own unique oppressor.

Several Shelf Interest Book Club members in a zoom call with Safiya Sinclair, author of How to Say Babylon. They are all smiling.
Shelf Interest Zoom Interview with Safiya Sinclair

We interviewed Safiya Sinclair live on zoom and she taught us more about Rasta-poetics and the decolonisation of language used by the Rastafari. She talked about healing and described how she doesn't burden herself to understand other people's feelings or worry about what they may think. Although she grew up in a family that encouraged secrecy, Safiya said that she was never secretive and always used writing as a tool to express herself. Writing this memoir was an important way for her to carry her family's history for Sinclair women to come, and to document Rastafari, a system that has relied on oral history.

Safiya asked her family members of their earlier experiences and perspectives in order to write this memoir, she described this as an avenue to learn more, understand and sympathise in a way that she did not before. The book itself was a vehicle of healing. She said that she wanted to write this book earlier in life but by instruction of her previous professor Gregory Orr, she waited until she was in a place of safety, and this is what she attributes to being able to write her family members in such a complex and compassionate way that does not completely mar the reader's views.

Shelf Interest Book Club Founders Posing with Safiya Sinclair
When we met Safiya in Brixton!

Similarly to October’s read: The Selfless Act of Breathing by JJ Bola, the poetry written into every line adds to the emotion communicated on each page. It is easy to become teary-eyed when reading this. With a very thought-provoking recall of her family’s history, Safiya tells her story in a way that allows the reader to paint a strong picture of the culture and dynamic she was surrounded by. Safiya’s mother was a gentle, hands-on, informal teacher; and excellence in education was the only escape from poverty and their father’s clutch: so all the Sinclair children shared an exceptional academic talent. With poetry being offered to Safiya in her teen years from her mother to cope with emotional distress, it grew into a wonderous talent that set her apart and forged a new life for her.

This book ties in a lot of traumas faced by many in the African diaspora. From the dream of traveling abroad, to the passing on of generational wounds, to violence, to isolating and growing paranoid of your surroundings – there were many points of reflection. Our bookclubbers reflected on how the family is often a microcosm of oppressive structures in the wider world and the methods set up to protect can often be the cause of harm.

A back woman sitting in a booth at the Hachard book tree, her face is covered by the book she is reading which is How To Say Babylon
Joyce having a cheeky read at Hachard's Christmas Book Tree in St Pancras!

A prominent conversation amongst our bookclubbers was the theme of forgiveness, and how that can look like many things. There is no wrong way to move on from harm as demonstrated by Safiya herself. She portrayed healing as very complex and non-linear, but was sure that it was centred from her core values and not proving a point. This complexity also extended to the beliefs around womanhood. with a backdrop of patriarchal violence impacting every main woman/girl mentioned in the book and seeming inevitable, there is no wrong way to navigate that harsh reality. Some women may suppress parts of themselves in order to survive, while others rebel. But what is important is that you come back to yourself and find your voice.

The memoir is overall encouraging and resonates on a soul level to several common family joys and traumas that most people from the African Diaspora would be able to understand in some way. While harrowing at certain points, the story has the consistent principles that “You just can’t give up!” and “Bettah must come”!

9 Shelf Interest members gathered to rate How To Say Babylon out of 5 stars. It was rated overall 4.8. 4.6 for readability. 4.7 for storyline. 4.7 for page-turner-icity. 4.9 for recommendation.
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