Poetry as an Act of Survival: A Conversation With Safiya Sinclair
By Erik GleibermannOctober 4, 2023
How to Say Babylon by Safiya Sinclair
Sinclair’s new memoir How to Say Babylon radiates most powerfully in scenes like this, where the author inhabits the liminal space between naturalistic prose and mystical poem. As she did in her debut poetry collection Cannibal (2016), Sinclair animates the Jamaican landscape of her childhood into a mythical wellspring, employing the lush imagery of poinciana trees, sea kelp, and jumbie birds that her mother would teach Sinclair and her three younger siblings about during nature walks around Montego Bay. In this setting, Sinclair layers several intertwining stories. She narrates her liberation journey over two decades into womanhood, clutching poetry as her key salvation weapon. She plumbs how a deeply wounded father and mother battle to claim their adventuresome daughter. And to reckon with her father’s tortured Rastafari spiritual extremes, she investigates the larger history of the persecuted brethren who seek an elusive Black spiritual Zion as they hold off the colonialist moral corruption of the Western world they call Babylon.
Sinclair traces her feminine coming-of-age through her body, pitted against an antagonistic father resolved to fortress it away from Babylon. She composes her body into a narrative map of gradual emancipations from his regime—when she first wears pants, later undoes a top blouse button at school, then pierces her ears, pursues fashion modeling and, in the decisive spiritual release from paternal authority, shears her dreadlocks. Poetry deepens the release as it opens a private sensual realm that is taboo at home. “There can be a power in the claiming of femininity and exploring the female body as a place of transformation and unspeakable power,” Sinclair told me in our August Zoom conversation, referring to the early influence of Sylvia Plath on her work. Plath was the first in a line of guiding women poets, including Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, and Rita Dove, who recruited Sinclair to attend the University of Virginia MFA program. This lineage of life-affirming women poets began with the author’s mother. “When I was a girl, my mother had taught me to read the waves of her seaside as closely as a poem,” she writes in the memoir’s opening paragraph.
While Sinclair foregrounds her mother as inspiration, the author refuses to cast her father as the villain, for she makes the masterful and compassionate choice to begin the memoir by highlighting Rastafari vulnerability. She recounts the cult’s tortured origin story and how her isolated father, questing with guitar in arm, gravitates toward the Rastafari spiritual discipline and its liberatory promise. By beautifully reconstructing Howard Sinclair’s inner life as a young man, Sinclair frames her father’s later abuse of his family as the wounded replication of postcolonial trauma. She does not, however, spare him. She recounts how the strict asceticism that would protect a Rasta man from the temptations of Babylon becomes perverted at home into a maniacal struggle to defeminize and desexualize Sinclair and her sisters. He wields a belt, forces them to drink a bitter purifying concoction, and deploys the Old Testament mythology the Rastafari favor by repeatedly demeaning her as a “Jezebel.”
The outward drama to overcome her father is the most immediate storyline of How to Say Babylon, but equally potent is Sinclair’s inward quest to defeat the lingering specters of the fallen Jezebel and the submissive Rasta woman in white by consigning them to verse. For Sinclair, poetry is more than a calling; it is, she affirms, an “act of survival.”
ERIK GLEIBERMANN: I’d like to start by asking about how you move in the space between memoir and poetry. How do you blend a concrete outer-world narrative with mystical poetry, particularly the vast landscape of creatures and vegetation that feels at times like a mythical force? For example, there’s that dramatic scene when you face the violent threat of your father and liberate yourself, growing talons and flying off.
SAFIYA SINCLAIR: I had concrete touchpoint images that I knew were going to come up, particularly the scene you mention of the growing of the talons. Others are the jumbie bird and the white owl, which is a death omen in Jamaica. I always feel that the work blooms out of the natural world and landscape of Jamaica. For me they are inseparable. The landscape informs the way I want the sentences to read. I can give information immersed in the folklore, the birds, the flora, the fauna. My mother would take me and my siblings on nature walks and point out the name of every plant and every tree and flower. I gazed outward in my poems before I turned inward. I call it the green language of poetry. There’s always a negotiation for me between poetry and prose. At first, it was difficult trying to tamp down the poet. A lot of it was at the behest of my editor, who said it’s all so lovely, but there might be moments where the reader needs to breathe. There had to be a balance of also saying things plainly. This is my first foray into prose, and I’m still trying to navigate it so that the reader has moments of rest but also feels the lush, slick, jungled landscape.
I found the scene where you first get a glimpse of writing’s power to be quite moving. An administrator at your high school suggests that you write down your feelings; you furiously list things you hate about yourself and suddenly realize how writing can be a channel for release. Soon after, you discover that poetry can be a world that is yours alone and can literally save your life. Today, 20 years further on, does writing still offer you that kind of liberatory power?
Absolutely. I feel grateful that it still has that power and resonance. It’s almost a spiritual space for me. I was searching for who I was, and where I would belong, and who I would become. There was a lot of emptiness, loneliness, and doubt. The poems come from a space of doubt alchemized into lyric. Poetry was the thing that answered back when I called out to the void. I always talk about poetry as being an act of survival. Even now it feels like when I’m writing poems the world stops and I’m in a space where anything is possible. That young girl there is wondering and questioning.
Can you talk about writing the storyline of that young girl growing up to reclaim and celebrate her body? You say of your father that “[your] hands were his” and then, as a young teen, that girls learn that “[their] bodies no longer belonged to [them].” You have progressive rites of bodily liberation. You cap your tooth, later pierce your ears, and in that decisive act of severance from the Rasta cult, shear the dreadlocks.
I wanted it to come across as tiny moments of rebellion that lead up to the big cathartic moment of cutting the dreadlocks. For so long, the idea of being different because of my body and my gender was such a big part of my life. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t think about it. I began to think, “What is wrong with me and why is it different for me compared to my brother?” Concurrently, I’m questioning the rules of Rastafari. I wanted to reflect on those little interior moments. These moments of liberation might seem small—like when my mother and grandmother devised the scheme for me to wear pants. But I can still feel how big a moment that was in my life. The same thing with piercing my ears. As I was trying to find my liberation both on the page and in my adolescence, my father’s control tightened. I wanted to explore the dichotomy of control and tightening leading to something explosive. I had to learn foreshadowing as a prose writer. I would leave little loops in the yarn as I was going forward in the telling. I started from a place of shame about the body, and I wanted it to end in a place of celebration and pride.
There’s also a mythical quality to your portrayal of your mother and father in your early years. There’s a geographical duality that embodies the tension between them that you must negotiate. She’s from a family of fishers and identifies with the sea, while your father is of the land. How did you develop that vision over the years?
This push-and-pull dynamic has existed my whole life. My mother has always been the calm one, the healing one, the nurturing one. Being from the sea gave her a freedom of spirit. My father being from the city gave him a hardened sensibility. It was already there and I just unearthed it. When I was immersed in it, there was no way I would have been able to contextualize it, though when I did start writing and publishing poems, I wrote poems about my parents and mythologized them as two forces. I knew I needed to write the chapter of them meeting, that this was my origin story. My mother is a good storyteller. She would tell me the stories and I would say, “Tell me again, tell me again.” The repetition became its own folkloric currency in the family. There was no way to talk about my becoming Rastafari without telling my father’s and my mother’s stories. I sat with them for hours of recorded interviews. I think it was the first time that anyone had ever asked them their stories.
I was struck by how you were able to write with raw honesty about your father’s abuse and obsession with thwarting your womanhood while also drawing a sensitive and interior portrait of his youthful suffering, especially the scene where he beseeches his mother to let him stay one night after she throws him out of the house. How were you able to gain the authorial distance to explore his life in such a measured way? You say at one point that you had to let go of the project and then return after five years.
I had to write it chronologically. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. When I was writing the later sections where I’m in my teenage years and things are particularly bad, I was not able to talk to my father. I needed distance because the moments of harm and hurt were so fresh. There were times in editing when I relived those moments and couldn’t even speak to him for weeks. It brought the wound right back up to the vein, that moment when I grew talons and wings and had to finally leave Jamaica to survive.
I got to the University of Virginia shortly after that. I started thinking about writing a memoir, but the wounds were so fresh. I was having recurring nightmares. I needed to have the five years pass and the moment at the Calabash Literary Festival in Kingston where I read a poem and my father says, “I’m listening and I hear you.” I felt a cathartic release. I thought, “Now I can write this.” Before, it wouldn’t have come out of a desire for hope. The early chapter where I had to get inside his head and try to understand him was the first time I considered his own upbringing and his wounds. He had loomed so tyrannically. He was a little bit monstrous. When I asked him about these things, it was the first time he had spoken them out loud. He got quite emotional. A lot of his chapter was transcribed word for word. He had his own kind of catharsis. Rastafari don’t believe in therapy. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Jamaica and said, “Dad, you should go to a therapist. I can’t be the one to talk it through with you.” He also asked to read the book. This was the first time he’d asked to read something I had written. And for the first time, he apologized to me and owned his wrongs. I don’t think that would have happened without the writing of the book and the speaking of it.
Readers might see the rebellion against your father as the central narrative. It’s so outwardly dramatic. But do you see the memoir being just as much a mother-daughter story? She’s the force of caring; she carries the power of the poem and the sea. I love the line toward the beginning, “She showed me how to look into the water and find its rhythm.”
She first taught me to read the history of the waves. A challenge when writing was that my father was the militant Rastafari, and he is the one everyone wants to know. My mother has a softer, quieter power. A lot of the time, she is in the background or not speaking. She speaks through her actions that I learned to read. A fundamental chapter is where I first discover poetry and she hands me my first book of poems and talks to me about her own love of poetry that made her life more expansive. The love of language I have today, the way I am connected to nature, comes from my mother. My father is the fire running through the book, but my mother is the gentle current and rhythm that kept me alive.
There’s a beautiful intimacy with your brother, Lij, who feels to me like a nurturing answer to the heavy, older male presences—your father, the Old Poet, Haile Selassie staring from the wall, even Derek Walcott, who’s pretty tough with you.
Yes, they’re all hard on me! My brother and I are partners in crime. We grew up so close. That was one of the gifts that also kept me alive even when our lives diverged. We created our own language, our own mythology, our own mode of survival. He had his own struggles of trying to balance and understand his self in the world. He’s questioning what he has always seen as what a Rasta bredren should be and what kind of father he wants to be. Now that he is a father, I’m so proud of him because he’s actively broken the cycle. When my niece is born in the story and I ask him whether Cataleya’s going to have all the same rules that we grew up with as girls, he says absolutely not. He says, “I see what my sisters went through and Cataleya will be able to choose her own life and author her own future.” I wept when he said that to me. He is an example of a man who is nurturing and trying to shed some of the patriarchal restraints that were handed down to him.
Can you talk about your perspective on writing about racial pain, which evolves through the story? In the beginning, it’s historical, embedded in the colonial violence that births the Rastafari movement and the idea of Babylon. In your years attending a largely white and wealthy girls’ high school, the racism plays out through the interpersonal relationships. And towards the end in Virginia, you face the glaring racism in the United States, which does turn out to be an oppressive Babylon where you feel the violence viscerally, again partly through nature, the scarred earth and trees.
The land holds history. It is a cultural pain and a national pain. The reason that I talk to you in English is not separable from colonial violence and pain that comes from imperial structures, what Rastafari call Babylon. I had to explore what it means to say Babylon. It begins where I talk about the Maroons fighting the British by using the land as their strength. They knew how to read the land and the British didn’t. They had a stronghold. That’s why I always try to return to nature. There is history there.
Most people who read the book might not know there are white Jamaicans. Who owns the hotels and who can go to the beach in Montego Bay are tied to racism and the history of colonialism. Most of the coastline is owned by foreign hoteliers. Most Jamaicans don’t have the privilege of going to the beach. Average Jamaicans cannot even enter the property of the hotels unless they are the gardeners, the maids, the musicians, or the bartenders. It was important to explore going to school with white Jamaicans to see up close the people who had this privilege handed down to them through being related to former enslavers. Then there was the prejudice I faced at the hands of my own teachers, who were Black but Christian, and who did not accept Rastafari people. Many Jamaicans don’t know about the massacre that Rastafari faced. Only recently has it come to light and the government made apologies for it.
There are many levels. Then, near the end of the book, I go to America, which many people see as an escape and a way to transform your life. But arriving in Virginia and having to come to terms with racism face-to-face was quite difficult. I could only make sense of it through writing it down.
How did you conduct the research to reconstruct the Rastafari historical events, such as the book’s opening, which describes Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to the island?
I had to become a Rastafarian historian from the ground up because there is so little literature about it. The Rastafari don’t have written tenets. Most of the history is passed down from bredren to bredren. My father gave us lectures about Babylon and Rastafari history, but a lot was condensed around preserving our purity and avoiding Babylon. I knew there were different sects of Rastafari, but until I sat down to write the book, I didn’t know the rules or what they believed. I recorded calls with my father and brother. I asked what the Bobo Ashanti believe and how to define Niyabinghi. I knew I wanted the book to begin with Haile Selassie’s visit because it is so epic. I did archival research. I watched Jamaican broadcasts in black-and-white of Haile Selassie's arrival. I found an article from 1966 in Life magazine that had many pictures in color. I could see the signs they were holding and how they were dressed. I began to build that into the narrative. The Rasta vernacular—or Rasta poetics, as I call it—is its own language like patois. For the dialogue, I had to call my father and ask, how do you spell this? In the word iman, is there a hyphen between I and man? I’m literally creating a lexicon from scratch. This was fun to do because it had nothing to do with me. It was probably the only time in the writing that I had no stakes in it.
On the subject of language and lexicon, do you see the style of your work as identifiably Caribbean or Jamaican? What writers from the region have particularly influenced you?
I see my work as fundamentally Caribbean and Jamaican. There were moments in editing when the copyeditor would ask whether we should contextualize something for a US audience and I would say no. I was not going to italicize or use a glossary for the patois. I wanted the book to be as unapologetically Jamaican and Rastafari as possible. There are so many writers from the region I find inspirational and have been influenced by. The obvious ones are Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite. I also love Sylvia Wynter, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and Jamaican writers like Lorna Goodison and Erna Brodber. In Jamaica, we say, “Wi likkle, but wi tallawah.” For such a small island, we’ve produced a lot of great things. We might be small, but we move mountains.
You’ve worked closely with poet Rita Dove, and in the memoir you describe how Sylvia Plath had such an early impact on your writing. How have women poets guided you?
Plath has been a touchpoint. It felt destined. I was so transfixed by the rigorous lyric and mythic landscape that she pulled from. It was really exciting when I discovered her at 16. I thought, oh, there isn’t just Wordsworth and Blake and walking in the daffodils. There can be a power in the claiming of femininity and exploring the female body as a place of transformation and unspeakable power. I love Lucille Clifton, who is so masterful in the way she packs so much power into a small space. It’s something I am still not yet able to do. Audre Lorde has been crucial to my development. And I wouldn’t be here without Rita Dove. I mean that literally and figuratively. She identified something in my work and called me and said, “I would love for you to come to Charlottesville.” I was on the precipice of existence. She appears in the Charlottesville chapter when I meet with her in her office and she says, “Tell me what you mean when you say you’re in exile?” I’ve learned so much from the way she writes about womanhood, family, and history. She’s almost unmatched in American letters. She is so generous as a teacher and mentor, in the grace she carries.
How do you see the role of hope in your story? In the opening, we learn about the almost biblical Rastafari hope for deliverance and for Black liberation. Then there’s that expression your parents return to, “Bettah must come.” Well, has it?
In so many ways, yes. Even though the book traces so much hard material in my life and my family’s life, the book is more than the sum of its wounds. I want the book to be a bridge to mending. When I first sat down to write, I thought about my niece. When she’s old enough to read the book and gets to the end, she and all the other girls yet to be born in my family will feel there’s hope, that their lives are their own for the shaping.
Safiya Sinclair was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. She is the author of the poetry collection Cannibal (2016), winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award in Literature, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry, and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Cannibal was selected as one of the American Library Association’s Notable Books of the Year, was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Seamus Heaney First Book Award in the United Kingdom, and was long-listed for the PEN Open Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her latest book is a memoir, How to Say Babylon (2023).
Erik Gleibermann is a social justice journalist, memoirist, and poet in San Francisco. His book-in-progress is Jewfro American: An Interracial Memoir.
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