I read my best book of 2023 last week.
Now I don’t want to get too ahead of myself — I could read something else brilliant in the next few weeks. However, I think it will be hard for anything to top Safiya Sinclair’s fascinating and beautiful memoir, How to Say Babylon.
It’s been compared to Tara Westover’s powerful memoir, Educated. Like Westover, Sinclair explores her isolated upbringing in a strict religious household. Both are compelling stories of young girls navigating the rules and restrictions of their families’ religious beliefs and finding ways to break free.
Sinclair was raised in a strict Rastafari household in Jamaica, the oldest of four children — three girls and one boy. Besides being a memoir, the book also offers a fascinating window into Rastafari as a religion. Her parents had joined the religious movement as young adults. They were both from dysfunctional families with absent, estranged, or deceased parents. Rastafari held an obvious allure as they were both seeking structure, security, and empowerment as young adults in a sometimes hostile world with little familial support. While both parents followed the Rastafari’s teachings, Sinclair’s father became a strict adherent of the religion and imposed its patriarchal teachings on his family.
Sinclair, her mother, and her sisters bore the brunt of these strict patriarchal teachings and the constant fear that they’d be defiled by Babylon — the rest of the world outside of the strictures of Rastafari. He allowed his daughters to go to school but over the years restricted their movements outside the home otherwise. The outside world was too full of temptations and dangers that might lead them away from their religion.
Despite their father’s authoritarian and sometimes violent control of the family, Sinclair and her siblings found ways to flourish, largely thanks to education and their own curiosity about the world. For Sinclair, the key to her escape became her love of writing and poetry. It was how she processed her upbringing and her complicated relationship with her father and Rastafarianism. It helped her cope with the trauma of being raised in such an isolated way. And finally, it offered her the ultimate ticket to freedom — a scholarship to a college in the United States.
I’m not doing the book justice here but just trust me — it’s a fascinating look into Rastafari as a religion and culture and a beautiful and painful account of a young girl finding freedom and power to step out of such a restrictive upbringing.
How to Say Babylon shows what a gift it is to be curious, to ask questions, and to explore. In a small way, it reminds me of the work we’re doing here at the Reformed Journal, creating a community that can ask questions and encourage curiosity about the beautiful and complex world we live in. And what a privilege it is to be able to do so.
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