Safiya Sinclair sheds Rasta roots as “How to Say Babylon” gains acclaim – Repeating Islands


[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Here are excerpts from Loop Caribbean on Safiya Sinclair’s highly acclaimed How to Say Babylon:

Glowing reviews and a groundswell of high-profile media coverage have been fast and furious for Arizona State University associate professor of creative writing Safiya Sinclair’s memoir ‘How To Say Babylon’ since its release back in October.

Now, Sinclair is listed among the finest in literature by multiple book critics on their year-end ‘Best Books of 2023’ summations for TIME magazine, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, which wrote that “the book grabs the reader with the beauty of its words but it sticks because of the thorniness and complexity of its ideas.”

The Montego Bay-raised poet and author’s much acclaimed work—which recalls an oppressive upbringing in a household led by an authoritarian Rastafarian father, discovering a love of language fertilised by her mother and finding her own identity in shedding her dreadlocks—had its beginnings over a decade ago.

She told The Guardian writer Hephzibah Anderson in a September-published interview titled ‘Safiya Sinclair on leaving her Rastafari childhood behind’: “I felt called to it a little bit over a decade ago now, but there were a lot of wounds that were still fresh, and I didn’t want to write from a place of hurt or vengeance. In 2018, I went back to Jamaica to do a reading and my father came to hear me for the first time. I read a poem that I had written for him, and when I got off the stage, after years of feeling I’d been diminished and never heard by him, he whispered in my ear: ‘I’m listening, and I hear you’.

“In that moment, I just felt this catharsis – a literal, physical release of burdens from my body – and I said: “OK, I think I can actually begin this book because I know where it ends.”  

Addressing the challenges faced translating her past into the present in prose, the academic told The Guardian: “the sections where I am an adolescent were just punishing. It’s such a turbulent age but throw in being ostracised at school for being Rastafari, and then going home and feeling like I didn’t belong inside its strictures – it was a hard and heavy place to return to. Some of the later chapters, when I talk about the decision to finally cut my dreadlocks and leave, and my father’s hurt and anger and violence – those were really hard to write as well. I was typing and weeping.”

The 39-year-old memoirist who recently wrapped up a multi-state American book tour including read-and-greet stops in Texas, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Georgia and California, was reflective of what dreadlocks signified to her in an October-published Vogue interview conducted by fellow dreadlocked Jamaican author Nicole Dennis-Benn for the fashion magazine’s online portal.

“The question of my hair has been such a fraught one from the day I was born. There were times where it felt like it overtook everything in my life. Every day it was something that I had to think about. As you say, the Rastafari wear their hair in dreadlocks–it’s not a choice for them. For my siblings and me, it was a decree that came down from my parents. For Rastafari, hair signifies their strength, their purity, their reverence,” Sinclair shared with Dennis-Benn.

“Inside my household, dreadlocks were supposed to signal my virtue, holiness, and purity, but once I stepped outside, it was the thing that put an X on my back, a mark for taunting and prejudice. My teachers treated me differently because of my dreadlocks—they were horrible to me. The students at my school mocked my siblings and me because of our dreadlocks. When I went out on the street, men called after my sisters and me, ‘Empress! Empress!’

“After I had my hair locked, it was the first time I felt doubt and shame. Instead of walking tall, I walked a little bit smaller every time I left the house.” [. . .]

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