In an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, How to Say Babylon, poet Safiya Sinclair recounts her upbringing in Jamaica—a life under livity, to use the argot of her parents’ adoptive Rastafarian tradition. (The culture, so often flattened by others into the stuff of dorm room posters, is rendered here with both nuance and clarity.) As Sinclair finds her own voice, her father retreats into the comforts of parochial repression; that tension propels readers through a happy but fraught adolescence and out the other side.

My father was never going to be a carpenter or a banker or a taximan, he said. He sang for Jah, so he had no choice but to cover the same ten Bob Marley songs for tourists eating their steak dinners in the west-coast hotels. At home, though, he could still be king. My mother placed every meal before him as soon as he beckoned for it. He had never turned on a stove, never washed a dish. Every evening before he left for work, my mother would wash his dreadlocks, pouring warm anointments over his bowed head at the bathroom sink, and then oil each lock as he sat eating fruit that she had cut for him. I imagined a servant, just out of frame, fanning a palm frond back and forth.