Underneath This had the soulful and meaningful experience of interviewing Ruth Marimo. Before reading the interview, please read more about Ruth in the bio statement that she wrote.
Ruth Marimo was born and raised in the Southern African country of Zimbabwe. In 1999, at the age of nineteen, after arriving in England she found herself booking a round trip ticket to the United States. She never boarded her return flight. Ruth now lives in Omaha, Nebraska, where she feels her number one job is raising her two beautiful children. To support her family, she owns a small residential and commercial cleaning business, and in her free time she continues to work on her writing, advocating for immigration reform, and speaking out against the mistreatment of LGBTQ people in Africa as well as the world. You can learn more about Ruth’s current work by visiting her website: ruthmarimo.com.
Please describe your path to becoming an activist and writer.
My path to becoming an activist and a published author was quite accidental. I started writing my life-story in jail awaiting deportation back in 2009, my book started as a goodbye letter to my two children. I was finally released from immigration hold after 30 days in jail. I went to church that first Sunday after my release and the pastor of the church preached an anti-gay sermon. I was so angry that I confronted him about who I was after the service. That was my first act of activism and I have never looked back since that incident.
In what ways have your social and personal identities influenced your activism and writing?
Who I am intersects on so many different levels with so many marginalized minority groups: I am an African immigrant who was undocumented; I am a single black mother; I am an out African lesbian woman; I was in an abusive interracial heterosexual marriage; I have children who are biracial; I was orphaned at the age of five; I date outside of my own race; and I am a woman from a third world nation. So in a sense I feel that I have so many causes to fight for, that my battle is never really done.
You have so much resilience. How have you survived and thrived through very challenging times?
As ironic as it sounds, I think losing my mother at such a young age and basically having this understanding that I was an outcast from childhood has made me resilient, I had to find ways of coping at such a young age and that has helped me deal with life’s trials as an adult. I have also been resilient because I have never wanted to repeat the actions my mother took, so I have never allowed myself to feel so defeated that I give up.
Your mother died by suicide when you were 5 years old. What could the world be doing more for those who have lost loved ones to suicide?
Society needs to understand the pain inflicted when suicide occurs – especially for children. I grew up in a culture where bad things are not talked about so I suffered in silence as a child. Society needs to understand that grief counseling is a must any time suicide occurs. Also silence about the person does not help, it is better to reflect on the person’s life and find healthy ways to remember them. Perhaps the most important thing is to foster environments that prevent suicide from occurring in the first place. Which could start by removing the stigma associated with mental health disorders.
What was the coming out process like for you as a woman from Zimbabwe?
It was extremely challenging. My ex-girlfriend had to literally force me to come out of the closet. When I finally did come out I faced a lot of homophobia from both family and friends. It was as if I had stopped being the person they knew, I felt shunned and people I was once close to distanced themselves in very obvious ways. It was lonely, even though I live in the United States.
Homophobia and heterosexism are experienced and perpetuated around the world, and there has been much focus on aversion to LGBTQ+ people in Africa today. What do you make of that and how do you respond?
I think it is so tragic the way African nations think they are fighting back against a Western influence by punishing their own citizens. The ability for Africans to easily turn violent against one another is something that has always bothered me. What is more disgraceful is the influence of the evangelical right from Western nations in perpetuating that hatred. That factor is actually one of the main reasons I have recently made a decision to walk away from religion. I can no longer identify with something that is so divisive.
What was it like emigrating from Zimbabwe to the UK?
It was a challenge because I was only eighteen and so uniformed about the ways of the world and its laws. I experienced some of the most difficult transitions in my life while living in the UK.
You are a survivor of domestic violence perpetuated by your ex-husband. What are ways that services can be more accessible to survivors of abuse?
I think funding programs that help employ people equipped to counsel survivors of abuse would help greatly. That area needs more case workers, more follow ups of these women and their children. Programs that actually help women escape abusive situations are imperative because most women stay because they have nowhere else to go, with no means of starting over alone. Here in Omaha Nebraska organizations like Heartland family services and Catholic Services are great examples.
What were some of the most challenging parts of being in the immigration detention center in the United States?
As an undocumented immigrant in custody I had no rights whatsoever and the jail that housed me had no information regarding my case . If I did not have relatives here who managed to hire an immigration lawyer on my behalf, I have no idea what would have become of me. The lack of rights undocumented immigrants have in detention centers is deplorable. I lost twenty pounds in thirty days – that is how miserable I was while in jail.
What has it been like living as a lesbian woman of color raising two children in Nebraska?
For the most part it has been good, we live in a great neighborhood in Papillion, which has some of the best schools in the nation and ranks among the safest in the country as well. My kids play outside with the rest of the kids in our neighborhood. I am out and open at their school which is diverse in terms of ethnicity, and ability, which makes the school terrific and inclusive. However racial disparities are very apparent in Omaha depending on where you live.
What have been some of the most rewarding experiences of the activism and motivational speaking you have done? The most challenging?
Last February I traveled to Yale as one of the featured speakers at the annual IVYQ (Ivy League Queer Conference) and last week I facilitated a creative writing workshop at a women’s symposium at Metropolitan Community College. I have had many challenges but I haven’t noticed them as much because my activism started from rock-bottom. I was prepared to stand entirely alone when I began this journey.
Congratulations that your next book, “OuTsider: Crossing Borders. Breaking Rules. Gaining Pride” is being released very soon, in fact on the National Day of Silence. Was this date selected intentionally?
Yes. So many aspects of my story are views we never hear. People living in the shadows are too busy trying to hide and survive and hence never speak up.
What has the experience been of writing and publishing this work?
It was a grueling process, my editor, Stephanie Finnegan, was relentless in making sure I brought raw emotion to paper. The publishing team at Scout Publishing LLC, CEO Ryan Sallans and Art Director Erika Block, have respected my voice and believed in my story. My girlfriend, Deanne, is also a writer and helps to give me different perspectives.
How has your family responded to your art and activism?
They have been mostly silent, they don’t yet know how to react. I think writing my story is too revealing for them and who I am is still uncomfortable for them. We come from a culture woman don’t grow up to write books – let alone their life-stories. However my family has come a long in accepting my identity and I am included in anything that pertains to family.
In what ways is your work feminist?
Every aspect of it is, especially from an African perspective, I have done everything I grew up being told women simply can’t do.
How does the experience of performing poetry compare to writing a memoir?
They’re both cathartic and are inspired by my experiences so I guess the difference is only that I use more metaphors when I write and perform poetry and writing a memoir is more factual and with performing I’m in front of a crowd and in writing I’m alone.
In your poem, “Who Am I?”, you eloquently and vulnerably reflect on some of your experiences including being “an alien to my own nation.” What do those words mean to you now?
Those are deep words that remind me that I am less valued where I come from because of my sexual identity. That I am less understood by the people I share a blood line with. That I was an outcast among my own people because orphans are not loved equally in my culture. That my own biological father never bothered to have a relationship with me – most likely because I was a girl.
As an African woman, how do you perceive the LGBTQ+ rights movements in the United States? How inclusive are the communities?
The LGBTQ movement in the US still has a long way to go, there is often division within the community. We have a long way to go as far as being trans inclusive, particularly in making space for trans people of color at the table. The rainbow flag is still largely a white flag; and that needs to change.
What feedback do you have for aspiring activists and authors?
You have to master the ability to stand in your own truth. The ability to allow people to walk out of your life because they will. The ability to make new families made up of people who see you as you are and believe in what you say.
On what projects are you working on next?
My next focus will be the first of a 12 series children’s book, titled ‘What Is Africa Really Like’. I will partner with American based Cameroon artist, Gerard Pefung. The motivation behind the project is to give children everywhere an accurate depiction of far-away places in the world. Often the picture they get from television is largely one sided and inaccurate.