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Audiobook Review: ‘How to Say Babylon,’ by Safiya Sinclair

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HOW TO SAY BABYLON: A Memoir, by Safiya Sinclair. Read by the author.


After her strict Rastafari father threatens to kick her out of the family home for refusing to cower to his verbal abuse, a teenage Safiya Sinclair looks out into the darkness of the Jamaican mountains, “the thick countryside where our first slave rebellion was born,” and sees the specter of a woman dressed in white, her dreadlocked head bowed “under the gaze of a Rastaman.” The woman, she realizes, is herself, a harbinger of “the future that awaited me at my father’s hands.”

Where “all the rage had been smothered out of” this recurring apparition in Sinclair’s debut memoir, “How to Say Babylon,” the same cannot be said of the author, who seethes and roars and overflows with emotion throughout this deeply affecting account of growing up under her father’s violent and controlling hand — and of escaping it to become an award-winning poet.

Hovering above the deep sadness and anger are Sinclair’s vivid and rhythmic memories of her mother’s laughter and her soothing touch as they “fold into each other in the living room” before school; the golden rolling paper Esther carried for the ganja whose aroma “clung to me like I clung to Mom.” Memories of her three younger siblings’ greasy fingers and gleeful screeching, of her father’s repeated chant, “Fire bun Babylon!,” which he “turned …. on his tongue like prayer.”

As if in answer to her father’s stifling doctrine, Sinclair spins her own incantations out of the untamed landscapes of her upbringing — first the fishing village lined with zinc-roofed shanties, hibiscus trees and cinder blocks; then the “towering blue mahoes and primeval ferns” further inland, the “serried and vigilant” mountain ridge of her later childhood — her voice as sensuous as a siren song.


HOW TO SAY BABYLON: A Memoir | By Safiya Sinclair | Read by the author | Simon & Schuster Audio | 16 hours, 46 minutes


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