Safiya Sinclair, HOW TO SAY BABYLON: A Memoir

Safiya Sinclair, HOW TO SAY BABYLON: A Memoir

Zibby speaks to Jamaican poet and memoirist Safiya Sinclair about How to Say Babylon, a dazzling and powerful book about the author’s struggle to break free of her father’s oppression as part of her rigid Rastafarian upbringing. Safiya describes how her mother and her profound love of books and learning got her through a brutal childhood. She also talks about the mentor who betrayed her; her journey of healing and forgiveness; the novel she is working on; and the Jamaican books she is reading and loving.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Safiya. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss How to Say Babylon: A Memoir.

Safiya Sinclair: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I have to ask — people listening can’t see, but Safiya’s fingernails are painted, perhaps, the same shade as her book cover. Intentional or not intentional?

Safiya: Very intentional. I happened to have a photoshoot a couple weeks ago. I was like, I’m intentional all the way down to the nails, so let me do something a little interesting.

Zibby: Seeing you here, and I’ll try to share a clip of this on YouTube or something, but it’s a far cry from the way you describe yourself at different parts of the book, from when your teeth were a crumbled mess in your mouth and your being so ashamed about your appearance in front of your classmates. From that, to see you sitting here looking just so perfect like you’re a model, it’s amazing. It’s just an amazing end to the experience of reading the memoir and then meeting you here on Zoom.

Safiya: It was quite a journey to get to that place. For so long in my life, I felt that I was being kind of outcast and diminished by so many people, by my teachers at school, by my classmates because I had dreadlocks, and then when I was at home, by my father because I was a girl and because I also questioned a lot of the rules and a lot of what comprised Rastafari in my household. I felt small for a long time. I had to retrace that journey in the book as well, and then to get to the place of feeling like, yes, I want to celebrate my womanhood and my femininity instead of being diminished by it, which is how I felt for much of my adolescence.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my gosh. You write in a very raw, brutal — vivid details about the experience of some of the most difficult scenes with your father. I don’t mean to paint him in any — everybody has stuff with their families in all sorts of different ways. I will say, as literature, as scenes in a book, they come through as really — it’s hard not to read without feeling so deeply, especially the scene when you felt your mother was not on your side for once. How did it feel writing about all of this and having to relive it? That couldn’t have been easy.

Safiya: It was not easy at all. I kind of had to brace myself in the writing of it. There were certain scenes and certain chapters that I knew ahead of time, okay, deep breaths, meditations. Make sure you go into this with a strong spirit. There were times when I was writing the first draft where I was typing and weeping at the same time. I was like, I just have to push through. Just keep going. Weep through it and get to the end. It was difficult. I wanted the reader almost skin close. I wanted the reader to feel that I wasn’t just telling what happened from a distance. I wanted you to kind of be there and feel it in a narrative way. To do that, I really had to go into detail. I had to remember the scenes and the dialogue. I had to express what I was feeling. That includes reliving it. Then of course, I had to edit it. If someone had told me that I was going to have to reread everything ten, fifteen, twenty times, I might have rethought this. It’s one thing, the first writing of it. Then editing it and then revising it and then again, and then the copyedits are in, I was like, oh, my goodness. Then I recorded the audiobook a month ago.

Zibby: I was just about to ask if you had recorded it yet.

Safiya: That was a whole other thing that I did not know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to do it. It wasn’t just narrating the book. It was also like, I want to do it well, so I have to change my voice a little bit or give the characteristic of my father, my brother, my mother and then also voice or, in some ways, really act out a lot of those scenes that were some of the most harrowing of my life. I think that’s the last time I really have to return to any of those. I think the catharsis is over, hopefully.

Zibby: I recorded my audiobook. I wrote a memoir called Bookends. In it, I talked about people who I loved and had lost. There was this one passage. I started reading it, and I was crying. I think it was about losing my grandmother or something. They paused. They’re like, okay, just take that one again from the top. I literally just read this and burst into tears. I can’t do that again. Really? Right now?

Safiya: I know.

Zibby: I had fair warning from the many authors who had warned me that it would be —

Safiya: — I had warnings too, and people who were even like, are you sure you want to record the audiobook? I was like, yes. It’s one thing to be forewarned and one thing to be sitting in the booth and refacing everything.

Zibby: Didn’t you have a minute where you were like, maybe I could be an audiobook narrator for a job? Did you have that?

Safiya: No. I was like, I’ll never do this ever again.

Zibby: Okay, never mind.

Safiya: I was like, I’ll give it my all. I’ll probably never even listen to it, honestly, Zibby. Giving it my all. I hope it’s a compelling listen, but that’s it for me.

Zibby: One and done. Part of what makes the book so powerful is that you create characters that are so vivid out of people who are real and in your life. Your mom becomes a true character. One of the pieces I loved about her — I just want to read this line or two, if that’s okay, about your mom, who you wrote about with such reverence. She started this whole education thing, really. It’s amazing. You said, “On her darkest days, it was always books that gave my mother’s world a clear sort of hope. She couldn’t leave, but she could still escape. She would rummage through rubbish bins at the adjacent hotels on the beach looking for old books left behind by tourists, their pages stained with discarded coffee grinds and fruit peels. Into their pages she went, always searching for something greater.” So great. I love the role of books in your mom’s life and in yours and then that you became a writer. Tell me more about your mom and her devotion to education and helping literacy and helping so many kids and all of that.

Safiya: Oh, my goodness, I just feel so lucky and blessed that she was my mom. I think I wouldn’t be a writer today if weren’t for her. I wouldn’t be a poet if it weren’t for her. She had this love of literature her whole life. She would always tell me that it was something that made her world more expansive, even when she lived in a place or lived under circumstances that would make her world actually feel small. Literature was the thing that really gave her a keen sense of hope. She believes in education as citizenship. For a long time, she would teach her classes for free because she just thought that it was her civic duty. She just wanted to help everybody that she could through learning and through reading. She devised her own program, her own methods, her tools of teachings that she used on me and my siblings. Then everyone was like, oh, my god, what’s the secret? Then she was like, okay, you could come over, and I can teach your children as well. She even had an adult component where she would teach the parents of the children. This is how you go about expanding the world for your children through reading, through recitation of poems, through songs, through walking through nature, appreciation of nature. Of those things, all of those are the tools she gave me to become a poet. Looking back on it later, she handed me my first book of poems. She would have me and my siblings memorize and recite poems. She would take us on nature walks through the countryside. She would point out to me the name of every plant, every flower, every insect I would see. From there came my love of the landscape and the natural world, and there bloomed my poetry and then my love of literature. I could tell you nobody is a bigger fan of my work than my mother. She will sit in the front row of my readings. I will look down, and I will see her mouthing the words of the poems.

Zibby: That’s so sweet.

Safiya: I know. She’ll be like, “I just can’t believe I have my own personal poet.” If nothing else, I am her personal poet.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you need to put it on a pillow or something. Give her a little tote bag. Courtesy of your personal poet. The journey to becoming a poet was also rife with unexpected twists and turns in your life and your relationship with the old poet, who you don’t name, I’m assuming very intentionally, and having a mentor who ends up taking a turn you prefer not to take. I’m trying to say it nicely without giving things away. There is also a sense of real loss that you feel reading those parts, that you really trusted him, and that sense of deep, almost grief over what you thought you had and then was lost again. I don’t know if that’s how you experienced it.

Safiya: It was. It was also a very confusing thing for a seventeen-year-old to process because there was so much good in it at the beginning where he was someone who mentored me in poetry. He was a person that made me feel like what I had to say was worthwhile for the very first time. Having this happen at sixteen, seventeen after growing up in this very repressive household where I was being molded into someone who was supposed to be obedient and pliant and silent — these were the virtues of a Rasta woman. I questioned that. Poetry was the place where I really first found my voice and cultivated that voice and that self, the person I could become in the future. When I met him, I did feel that I was validated as a poet for the first time. Yes, I should continue this thing. What I have to say is important. I should say it. Then having this kind of betrayal, which is not uncommon for so many of us, and thinking about all the different ways that the patriarchy is insidious and reaches even things that you thought were pure and untouchable become tainted and destroyed in some ways by these kind of patriarchal views and actions. I’ve also tried not to give it all away.

Zibby: Okay, we can keep going.

Safiya: I can talk more and more about it. I did want, when I was writing it, the reader to feel the same sense of shocking and crushing betrayal that I felt. At first, I was full of wonderment and excitement and purity. Then this moment where everything shifted and I was reduced again not to mind, but to my body was a moment that was really hard for me, and one that I couldn’t even come to terms with until a few years with time and distance and really thinking about what happened and that it wasn’t okay.

Zibby: There’s so much in the book about, what is the role of the outsider of the — not the outsider, but what is the role of somebody who notices when something untoward is happening? Is there a role for that person? There’s the example with your mom with the little boy who showed up with cigarette burns all over him and then never showed up again, him and his brother. How can anyone help? What are we all to do when we see these things? What is the reader to take away from this at the end? Are we to stand by and listen to stories or mistreatment of women or anybody, whatever? What are we supposed to do with all of this? What do you want people to take away?

Safiya: That’s a good question. Sometimes it’s hard or it feels overwhelming to think about these different questions of abuse and of violence and what to do as an observer. I don’t know what’s the answer to that. I think we would all feel like stepping in in whatever ways we can, is the best course of action. With those young boys, we searched for them. We tried to find where they’d gone, but we never found them. From my side where I was also a person who was a victim of different kinds of abuse, for a long time, as I was saying before, I couldn’t even process or come to terms with it. Then when I finally started to come to terms with it and went on my own journey of healing, the thing I wanted most was to find a path, particularly for my family and my father, a path to forgiveness, if there was one, if it was possible. I knew I couldn’t write the book if I didn’t have that. I didn’t want to write the book if I was still hurting in the way that I was hurting when I left home. I think it would’ve been a different book if I’d written it out of that hurt and out of that wound. I needed a place of distance. I needed what my professors called a place of safety. That’s what I wish for anyone who’s in this similar position, is a place of safety. Whatever ways we can help to offer that I think is part of what we can do in these situations.

Zibby: How does the rest of your family feel about the book, especially your siblings?

Safiya: You know, they haven’t read it.

Zibby: What?

Safiya: Yes, I know. They all have copies. As far as I know, they haven’t read it. I think my brother’s wife read it and told it to him. I think everybody’s on their own journeys to healing and processing. Mine might be this strange way of actually writing it down and sharing it with the entire world. Everybody else is dealing with it in their own ways. I have to respect that as much as I can. They’ve all said they’re proud of me. They’ve read the short excerpts. They all had to read the New York excerpt because the fact-checker called them and asked them every single thing about their lives. They all read that, so they have some sense of it. Strangely enough, my father asked me if he could read it. This was the first time he’d ever asked me to read anything I had written. Three weeks ago, I was home in Jamaica. I gave him a copy of the book. I think of all my family, he’s the only one who is actually reading the book.

Zibby: Wow. Were you nervous about that?

Safiya: I was, but I think that I tried my best to give everybody grace to write with a kind of nuance that he would come across as a complex and flawed human, but not a cartoon villain. Then I wanted some moment at the end of an opportunity for hope, an opportunity for a change in the future, for some kind of catharsis. I wanted the book, in some ways, to try to break these cycles of trauma, if it could be some currency for change and healing in my family. It gave me and my father the opportunity to actually talk to each other in a very real way for the first time. I think it’s already giving me that first step towards whatever healing might come.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, wow. What comes after this now? You’re going to go on, I’m sure, this whirlwind tour. Where do you want this to go? What writing projects do you want to tackle next? What’s on the horizon?

Safiya: I really was looking forward to turning back to poetry and writing some poems. I’m also working on a novel, which is under contract with my publisher. I’m sure they’re going to be asking the same question at some point. I imagine, January 1st, hey, what’s going on? Working on this novel. It’s a multigenerational novel that traces six hundred years of Jamaican history beginning with the arrival of Columbus in the fifteenth century and the decimation of the native Taíno people in Jamaica. Then we follow six different women through six different periods in Jamaican history starting with Columbus’s arrival and slavery, with Jamaica’s independence, with the revolution of the seventies. It ends in the near future by the seaside where we’re facing the oncoming climate apocalypse.

Zibby: Gosh, oncoming climate apocalypse, nice and light thought there this afternoon.

Safiya: I know. I’m not making it easy for myself, am I?

Zibby: Are you going to be doing any book marketing in Jamaica?

Safiya: Yes. I’m really excited to do some things in Jamaica. I really want to go around to high schools in the parish and share some books and maybe do some workshops with the students there. I want to give back. I want to reach that young Jamaican girl who’s imagining she might be a writer, but it feels so farfetched that she can’t imagine it as a reality. I want to reach her and see her and say, it’s possible. Keep going. Keep writing. I’m looking forward.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I’m a publisher too. We have a book coming out by a woman named Donna Hemans. I don’t know if you know her.

Safiya: I know Donna, yes. I did an interview with her as well.

Zibby: Oh, you did. I’m deep diving into Jamaican base literature. I have spent many years actually going to Jamaica myself. I feel terrible even saying that. Actually, going to Round Hill, which is in the book. Now I’m on the tourist side versus — it’s just paths colliding in all these different ways.

Safiya: What are some of the Jamaican novels or books you’ve been reading that you like?

Zibby: Yours is my favorite.

Safiya: That wasn’t a trick. That wasn’t a trick question.

Zibby: What are you reading? What do you like to read?

Safiya: I have been reading Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s new novel called Chain Gang All Stars, which is really fantastic, the way he’s writing about the carceral system, about the prison-industrial complex in the US but told through this really interesting dystopian, near-future frame where we’re thinking about American TV and violence and so on. It’s a really great book. I’m savoring that one. I just finished reading a poetry collection called The Ferguson Report: An Erasure by Nicole Sealey. You have to give a little shout-out to a poet because my roots is poetry. This book is amazing. She takes the Ferguson Report, which was commissioned by the Department of Justice after Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, and she, through her erasure, makes something startling, dazzling, new. It complicates our ideas of racism, of police violence, of the history of Black people in America. She’s taking all of that traumatic past and present and thinking about the future, a future that leans toward hope and toward wonder. That kind of Afro-futurist desire, yearning for a future of possibility, is something that I really love. This book does that. Those are two books that have been really feeding my soul.

Zibby: Amazing. What’s your biggest procrastination technique? When you’re in the middle of doing stuff you have to do for work or writing or something you don’t want to do, what is it? Do you snack? Do you watch? Do you Instagram? What is your thing? What are your things?

Safiya: It’s so bad. It’s so bad I don’t even know if I should say it.

Zibby: Yes, you should say it.

Safiya: I go shopping. I do online shopping where I just start imagining outfits and clothes.

Zibby: That’s not so bad. I thought you were going to say you had a secret gambling addiction. I don’t know what you were going to say.

Safiya: Oh, my goodness.

Zibby: No, I’m kidding.

Safiya: That’s my biggest procrastination. Then sometimes, I try to justify it. I’ll be like, you know, I could be wearing this to an event or a reading, so I’m doing something that’s actually — .

Zibby: This was going to end up on my to-do list at some point.

Safiya: Exactly. That’s definitely up there for procrastination.

Zibby: That’s so funny. What is your parting advice for aspiring authors?

Safiya: I’ll say the same thing I tell my students. Read everything. Read widely. Read everything you can get your hands on, not just novel, not just fiction. Read poetry. Read science. Read nature books. Read philosophy. Read theory. As a writer, that is something that only ever helped me get better or make my work more complicated or to see who I’m in dialogue with or to see what writers are on my family tree. Where does your work bloom from? It comes from reading deeply and widely and nourishing the writer’s soul and the muse, the reading. Then I’d also give the advice that my own eight-year-old self, when asked by the Jamaican press what advice I had for other children, she said, you just can’t give up. I’d say that, also, to writers. It is hard work, but don’t give up.

Zibby: Amazing. Safiya, thank you so much. This was wonderful. Thank you for sharing, baring your soul on the page, and for chatting with me today.

Safiya: It was so lovely talking with you. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. Good luck with everything.

Safiya: Thank you.

Zibby: Bye.

Safiya: Bye.

HOW TO SAY BABYLON: A Memoir by Safiya Sinclair

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