Read With Us Selection
Spring 2024

How To Say Babylon
by Safiya Sinclair

52 pages
Published October 3, 2023 by Simon & Schuster
  • Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award 2023
  • Nominatd for the Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction (Short List)
  • Chosen as a “Jenna’s Pick” for the TODAY Show read-along, November 2023

“An essential memoir. Sinclair’s devotion to language has been lifelong, and How to Say Babylon is the result. This book is lit from the inside by Sinclair’s determination to learn and live freely, and to see her beloveds freed, too.”

—Jesmyn Ward, author of Let Us Descend

Brief Synopsis

(from BookBrowse)

With echoes of Educated and Born a Crime, How to Say Babylon is the stunning story of the author’s struggle to break free of her rigid Rastafarian upbringing, ruled by her father’s strict patriarchal views and repressive control of her childhood, to find her own voice as a woman and poet.

Throughout her childhood, Safiya Sinclair’s father, a volatile reggae musician and militant adherent to a strict sect of Rastafari, became obsessed with her purity, in particular, with the threat of what Rastas call Babylon, the immoral and corrupting influences of the Western world outside their home. He worried that womanhood would make Safiya and her sisters morally weak and impure, and believed a woman’s highest virtue was her obedience.

In an effort to keep Babylon outside the gate, he forbade almost everything. In place of pants, the women in her family were made to wear long skirts and dresses to cover their arms and legs, head wraps to cover their hair, no make-up, no jewelry, no opinions, no friends. Safiya’s mother, while loyal to her father, nonetheless gave Safiya and her siblings the gift of books, including poetry, to which Safiya latched on for dear life. And as Safiya watched her mother struggle voicelessly for years under housework and the rigidity of her father’s beliefs, she increasingly used her education as a sharp tool with which to find her voice and break free. Inevitably, with her rebellion comes clashes with her father, whose rage and paranoia explodes in increasing violence. As Safiya’s voice grows, lyrically and poetically, a collision course is set between them.

How to Say Babylon is Sinclair’s reckoning with the culture that initially nourished but ultimately sought to silence her; it is her reckoning with patriarchy and tradition, and the legacy of colonialism in Jamaica. Rich in lyricism and language only a poet could evoke, How to Say Babylon is both a universal story of a woman finding her own power and a unique glimpse into a rarefied world we may know how to name, Rastafari, but one we know little about.

Information About the Author

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

(From Safiya Sinclair’s website)

SAFIYA SINCLAIR was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. She is the author of the memoir How to Say Babylon, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography, a finalist the Kirkus Prize, and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in Non-Fiction and the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. How to Say Babylon was named one of the 100 Notable Books of the year by the New York Times, a Top 10 Book of 2023 by the Washington Post, one of The Atlantic’s 10 Best Books of 2023, a TIME Magazine Top 10 Nonfiction Book of 2023, a Read with Jenna/TODAY Show Book Club pick, and one of Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2023. How to Say Babylon was also named a Best Book of the Year by The New Yorker, NPR, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Vulture, Harper’s Bazaar, and Barnes & Noble, among others, and was an ALA Notable Book of the Year. The audiobook of How to Say Babylon was named a Best Audiobook of the Year by Audible and AudioFile magazine.

She is also the author of the poetry collection Cannibal, winner of a Whiting Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry, the Phillis Wheatley Book Award, and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Cannibal was selected as one of the American Library Association’s Notable Books of the Year, and was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Seamus Heaney First Book Award in the UK, and was long listed for the PEN Open Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize.

Sinclair’s other honors include a Pushcart Prize, fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, MacDowell, Yaddo, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Time Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Granta, The Nation, and elsewhere. She is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Arizona State University.

Book Reviews

Author Interview

Winter Words with Safiya Sinclair
An excellent – but long (roughly an hour) – interview with Safiya Sinclair at The Aspen Institute, February 29, 2024


From TODAY with Hoda & Jenna
A short (7 min), promo interview on the Today show from October 25, 2023; it’s very . . . Today show-ish, but interesting because there are a couple of very good questions from members of the Harlem branch of the Mocha Girls Read book club.


From The Center for Fiction and the Brooklyn Caribbean Literature Festival
This is an hour-long video from October 2023 features Safiya Sinclair being interviewed by Tara Westover, author of Educated, at the Center for Fiction. The two authors have more than a few things in common, but there are also plenty of differences. The interview is interesting and provides excellent background.


Supplemental Resources

Rastafari Culture

To learn more about Rastafarian Culture, this link provides a brief but comprehensive summary. There are additional links to articles about Haile Salassie, Bob Marley, and the history of Jamaica.

Reggae Music Sampler

Here’s a short playlist of reggae songs to accompany your reading of the book.

Silver | Safiya Sinclair

Silver flows through my veins

Into my hands when I caress the strings 
                            of my guitar
Silver is the moon I swallowed
on a dry dreary night when I willed it so
silver is the rain in May
wholesome and lithe and falling into me
Our springtime sarabande kisses me sodden
up then I’m happy
down then I’m sad
Silver    I cry        Silver
Silver encases my heart
like a drunk jeweller quenching a cigarette
silver is my lips against the ice
my tongue against the frost
the sweet staccato
my praline dress
my stuck umbrella on a sunshiny day
Silver is the witty wind
coaxing my eyes to sleep
upon the blurred pastel pages
of a slipshod butterfly
Silver is a legerdemain
Legs like a leprechaun that feeds on leer 
                                       and lemons
A quire of my deepest thoughts
the inkling of my most secret soul
It is the palsied web
of the crestfallen spider
the ugly dewdrop ring
that scars my finger like acid
dusk that brings the sidereal night
resting its echo upon the wing
of a firefly that drinks the silver from my eyes
Silver is my billowing meerschaum
is the flicking goldfish fin in the silent sun
silver are the wispy strands in my hair
lined silver spiralling through the universe
Silver chose me
like starlight to the naked eye
the words I bleed are silver
the time that dances minuets
upon my broken sylvan skin,
is silver in a lancer’s armor
when my stomach bursts
and I disgorge eternity
silver stands beside me
fondling the viol
The weight, the wind, are uxurious
for they are solely silver
ever heading my way
My ears are filled with a pixie’s dreams
like honey      only Silver
when the days of maiden’s trouble subside
silver peels away
My belly swells
and it’ll be a while
but I know more silver 
is welling

Join Us For the Book Discussion on Zoom

Tuesday, June 11, 2024, 7:00 pm Eastern time
Questions will also be posted on our blogs: Highly Reasonable, Carole Knits, Dancing At the Edge.

Please RSVP to receive Zoom link information by emailing Kym Mulhern (email in sidebar) by Jun 10, 2024. Thank you.

“There was more than one way to be lost. More than one way to be saved. While my mother had saved me from the waves and gave me breath, my father had tried to save me only by suffocation. With ever increasing strictures, with incense smoke, with fire. Both had wanted better for me, but only one of them would protect me in the end.”

― Safiya Sinclair, How to Say Babylon