Four years ago Ruth Marimo sat in the Cass County Jail contemplating suicide. The mother of two and then-undocumented immigrant from Zimbabwe, Africa was there because her estranged husband, whom she says verbally and physically abused her, reported her to authorities.
In the space of 30 days behind bars she seemingly lost everything. Her children, her home, her job, her will to live. She feared deportation and never seeing her kids again. It was all too much for a woman whose mother committed suicide when Marimo was 5 and whose only sibling died as a toddler. With things at their darkest Marimo began writing. Amid tears of despair she put her story down with a pen on the back of jail activity forms. She filled up dozens of sheets.
“I just kept writing and the pages kept adding up,” she says. “It was almost like something pushed all of these words out of me.”
Flash forward to today, when Marimo’s 2012 memoir Freedom of An Illegal Immigrant is a self-published success story that’s propelled a new career as an author and inspirational speaker. Marimo, who fought court battles to win sole custody of her children, is recently returned from her most prestigious speaking appearance yet, a Feb. 8 address for the IvyQ Conference at Yale University. The gathering of students and scholars from all the Ivy League schools seeks to empower young people in owning their sexual identities.
Marimo, who came out as a lesbian in the aftermath of her failed marriage, is a LGBT activist often called on to speak at equal rights rallies. She’s also a popular spoken word artist at Verbal Gumbo, where a poem of hers she performs there – “Who Am I?” – asserts her complex identity.
She next shares her momentous personal journey Feb. 20 in the Nebraska Room of the Milo Bail Student Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her Noon talk is free. A Q&A follows and Marimo will also sign copies of her book.
The happy, confident woman who addresses audiences these days would not exist, she says, without the crucible of her tragedies and traumas.
“Those are the things that helped me become the person I am today. Even in those times I want to feel sorry for myself there’s so much I am grateful for.”
The memory of her past struggles, she says, “is what pushes me to speak, to be passionate, to even want better for my kids,” adding, “That’s where I think my drive, my activism comes from,. Everything I’m doing now is very purposeful because I can’t forget who’ve I’ve been and what I’ve been through.”
She’s pleased that her story inspires others. “I’ve heard from people all over the world saying that my story’s touched them.” If more women would leave abusive relationships because of her story she’d be pleased but she despairs most will choose to stay put. She empathizes.
“I think for a long time I was that person that stuck around in the wrong relationship. I had this husband, I had these two beautiful kids, but I was so lonely and miserable. I knew I was in the wrong marriage, an abusive marriage. He would choke me and then we would be out holding hands and everybody would see this totally different picture. There are so many people stuck in abusive relationships and they don’t have the courage to take the next step. They don’t have that drive to be willing to get out and risk everything.
“Of course, there’s a thousand reasons why you stay. I could have easily stayed in my marriage but it would not have changed anything. Even though I went to hell and back and lost everything, the peace of mind I have to be able to freely express myself is so much worth it.”
She shutters to think how different her life would be if she hadn’t left the marriage.
“You wouldn’t know this Ruth, I wouldn’t have written a book, I would still have been stuck in that mundane, everyday life of pleasing the world and not pleasing myself and not facing who I really am.”
Freedom is in the title of her book for a reason.
“It was a very purposeful naming. For me it refers to the freedom of me actually accepting and owning up to who I am – an undocumented, gay, African woman who was orphaned. All this stuff I was trying to hide is who I am.
“We have all of these layers of who we and society thinks we should be or how we should act. A very small number of people are lucky enough to strip away those layers at some point and reveal for themselves who they really are. That I think is where the freedom was coming from.”
Life is good for Marimo now. She’s content raising her kids. She has financial security from the cleaning business she owns and operates. She’s fulfilled by her speaking gigs and writing projects, including completed manuscripts for a children’s book entitled But What is Africa Really Like?, a teen book of African folk tales, a poetry volume and an adult erotica novel. Omaha artist Gerard Pefung is illustrating the children’s book. She eagerly awaits getting her Green Card so that she can travel abroad and participate in the international seminars she’s invited to.
One day she fully expects to return to Africa, but she says it will need to be cautiously as her gay and women’s activism makes her a target there. Nothing though will get her to remain silent again.
“Peace of mind and inner happiness I’ve discovered are more important than anything,” she says. “To me, if you’re unhappy you’re essentially dying a slow death and you’re the only one that knows it.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.