Safiya Sinclair tells the story of her life, up until this point, in the riveting memoir "How to Say Babylon."
Chosen as a Read With Jenna book club pick, the memoir tracks Sinclair's road out of her childhood home, completely defined by her oppressive and intense father.
“It’s a book about freedom, choice, becoming who we’re meant to be,” Jenna tells TODAY, but it’s also about “family and a mom’s devotion.”
Growing up in Jamaica, Sinclair's father was a musician and a Rastafari adherent, along with less than one percent of Jamaica’s population. He wanted to keep Babylon — or the outside world, specifically America — from entering his family home and stripping his wife and daughters of their purity.
“I always say this book is about a young woman on the precipice of her existence. Having to navigate a life and religion that I was raised in, that diminished me,” Sinclair told TODAY.
Below, find an excerpt from "How to Say Babylon," of Sinclair describing her home by the sea before the family made the first of many moves.
We lived by the seaside until I was five years old, in our tiny fishing village called White House, which belonged to the fishermen of my mother’s family, her father and grandfather. Hidden just beyond the margins of the postcard idea of Jamaica was our little seaside community, a modest hamlet shrouded behind a wall of wind-gnarled trees and haphazard cinder blocks, a half mile of hot sand browned from our daily living and sifting between bare toes, glittering three hundred yards in every direction to the sea.
Here, my mother and I drew our first breaths in salt-air and measured our seasons by the sea breeze. From the village entrance, at certain slant angles, the sea’s view was obscured by small wooden houses, no more than thirty in total, modestly crafted by the men who lived here, men who died here. My family lived in close quarters and knew the subtle dialect of each other’s dreams. Under a zinc roof held together with sandy planks and sea-rusted nails, we lived in the shrinking three-bedroom house my grandfather had built with his own hands. I shared one room with my parents and my brother Lij, who was two years younger than me, all four of us sleeping on the same bed, while my newborn sister Ife, who was four years younger, slept in a hand-me-down playpen next to us. My aunts Sandra and Audrey shared a room with my cousin, while my grandfather and his 19-year-old girlfriend slept with their three young daughters in their own room. Somewhere in this house, or the next, is where my mother keened her first cry, and my grandmother keened her last.
Along this cluttered shoreline is where my uncles anchored their boats, handmade and brightly painted, bearing names like "Sea Glory", "Morning Star", and "Irie Vibes". Most mornings I watched for hours as they patched up their fish traps made with chicken wire, scaled buckets of fish to sell, or arranged them on large ice blocks for roasting later over a coal fire. Our little half mile of sea often fed the entire village — fishermen hauling heavy, glittering nets filled with sea turtles, dwarf sharks, red snappers, bonito, and the sweet flesh of a conger eel. People from all over Mobay — our nickname for Montego Bay — would come to buy fish, shouting and haggling at this makeshift market for our riches fresh from the sea. Then came the meager scavenge of the hungry and curious: children, ducks, and mongrels waiting for a bone, a bite of flesh, a fish head to suck on. When the smell of cooking wafted through the wooden walls and floorboards of every house, the villagers would gather around the Dutch pot, mouths watering.
Whenever my mother’s sisters fell down on their luck, or one of them got pregnant, they returned from the sweltering inland cities to the beach, packing into the always-warm house with the red polished floor that stained my bare feet crimson, our breath rising and falling with the waves outside. We had no electricity, no running water. With the windblown houses and ramshackle beach, indoor plumbing was a luxury, so none of the houses in the village had bathrooms. Instead, all the villagers shared a pit-latrine, about three hundred yards away from the farthest house. Children were not allowed to use the latrine, since we were in danger of falling in, so we were each tasked to keep a plastic chimmy in the house instead, emptying it into the sea every morning. My parents showered outside in the sand in one communal shower hastily built with thrown- away plywood, while my siblings and I bathed in basins set down close by, next to a standpipe in the yard.
The sea was the first home I knew. Out here I spent my early child- hood in a wild state of happiness, stretched out under the almond trees fed by brine, relishing every fish eye like precious candy, my toes dipped in the sea’s milky lapping. I dug for hermit crabs in the shallow sand, splashed in the wet bank where stingrays buried themselves to cool off. I slept under the ripened shade where the sea grapes bruised purple and delicious, ready for sucking. I gorged on almonds and fresh coconut, drinking sweet coconut water through a hole my mother gored with her machete, scraping and eating the wet jelly afterward until I was full. Each day my joy was a new dress my mother had stitched for me by hand. She and her sisters each had a distinct laugh that rang out ahead of them like happy sirens wherever they went, crashing decibels that alerted the whole village to their gathering. Whenever the sisters sat together on the beach talking, I clung to their ankles and listened, mimicking their feral cack- ling, which not even the herons overhead could escape.