Ain't I A Woman Collective

Centring the Voices of Women with African Ancestry

Interview with Ruth Sutoyé

Our editor Ella Achola speaks with poet Ruth Sutoyé about feminism, faith and what it means to be British-Nigerian in different countries and academia.


Ella: Who is Ruth Sutoyé?

Ruth: I’m British-Nigerian, raised in East London by my very Nigerian mother so I’m very much in tune with my heritage. I’m a poet/writer and I’m currently in the process of collating my first chapbook of poetry to be released at a later date.

Ella: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Ruth: Yes, yes and, yes! Very unapologetically so! I think I’m very proud to wear the label but it’s not everything in the sense that if someone doesn’t necessarily identify as feminist that’s not necessarily an issue. There’s often a conflict for people and even myself, thinking about how you can be Christian and feminist. People wonder how that works. For me faith and feminism walk hand in hand and simultaneously walk in tension but I’m settled with that because that is life in general. Even before I identified as feminist, I was often questioning myself regarding what I believed religiously. Now as a feminist my understanding is that many religions and faiths wrestle with the patriarchy embedded within them and it’s about unpacking that. For me Jesus was a revolutionary figure and I’d like to say that Jesus was a feminist (in that he believed in equality). Some people may bash me for that, which is fine, but reading through the Bible narratives of who he spent time with and was often associated with – they were people who were the deemed the outcasts of society. So yes, feminism and Christianity sometimes live in tension but I’m unpacking that tension and I’m okay with that.

Ella: I know you’ve lived in multiple countries. How has your sense of belonging shifted?

Ruth: It’s always shifting, it’s always growing. In my much younger years I was living in a kind of identity purgatory of not feeling like I belonged anywhere. So I was born and raised here [London] but I didn’t feel British because the system did not really cater for ethnic minorities. Representation was minimal and erasure was rampant and then at home was my Nigerian mother who wanted to instil Nigerian values in me that I didn’t necessarily agree with. She would always tell me, “Don’t let this country tell you that this is home, you’re Nigerian, you better remember you’re Nigerian!” These warnings often came up as a response to cultural clashes, so me behaving in ways that were seen as ‘too British’ and unacceptable or foreign to Nigerian culture.

Ella: And then you went to the States…

Ruth: I’ve vacationed in the US yearly for almost a decade; it’s like a third home so I decided to complete part of my undergraduate degree there. But going on holiday and living there eventually proved to be two separate experiences altogether. It was for me, the first time consciously being confronted with the shock of my blackness in terms of being the other black. I’ve always lived in this fantasy thinking “We’re all black, we’re the same!” but going to the US during school, it was being faced with reactions like “Oh you’re British!” and then “Wait! There’s black people in England?” So being black and British was already enough for people to grapple with but with being Nigerian as well, it was that third element where people were like “So you’re an African too?”, which unleashed questions like if my mother swam to England during her migration and such… That was complex for me because I didn’t know how to really unpack that resistance at the time.

Ella: And then you moved to Costa Rica?

Ruth: Yes, briefly and that was amazing! I felt like there my blackness was celebrated, at least by the natives. In the island I lived on, Samara, I was probably one of the darkest skinned people. Due to the size of the island (tiny), most people knew that I was the black girl from London who dances like an  African and that was hilarious! I felt that even though we were different I could speak to many black Costa Ricans about my heritage and they could talk to me about theirs. That exchange was magical to me. The main tensions I experienced in Costa Rica were with white American teachers who were my colleagues. There were two of us Brits there and I was the only black Brit, and again it was that kind of space that I had occupied when I was in the States that translated into this context of “Ah you’re black and you’re British and African.” I was undermined most in my classroom when I was teaching alongside some white American men. So after completing a full circle from the UK to the US to the UK to Costa Rica and back here to the UK, I feel like those experiences helped me find my voice and I’m back here navigating what that looks like in this context.

Ella: How would you evaluate your experiences as a black woman within academia?

Ruth: Honestly, it has not always been great. I mean it is in a sense because I do feel privileged in terms of the opportunity but it can be difficult fully occupying and committing, especially when you just do not see anyone who looks like you. During my undergraduate degree, there were initially 300 students in my cohort and I was the only black woman on my course. Doing my masters right now after moving, working and coming back to academia, I’m the only black woman as well. Actually, I’m the only black person on my degree right now but I’m not surprised but I think one of the hardest things was not finding any teaching academics that look like me. That statistic that came out recently about there being 17 black female professors across the UK blew my mind but at the same time did not. Being black and a woman in academia has taught me one of the biggest lessons, namely to learn when to choose my battles. Most days can be exhausting so it’s choosing how exhausted I want to be. Some days I honestly give up and I’m like “I’m not doing this today, I don’t have the willpower to deal today” and then some days, I’m like “you. will. deal! All of you will deal!” Again, it’s about everyday navigating of that.

Ella: So how important is self-preservation?

Ruth: I have to thank some of the phenomenal black women and some incredible black men, who have taught me the phrase recently because I feel like it’s something that I’d been lacking my entire life. I’ve lived my life quite exhausted due to constant busyness. But especially in the recent years, since ‘waking up’ I guess, self-preservation is paramount to me for survival on a spiritual, mental, emotional and physical level. It’s too easy to become weary from everything that happens in the world to the point it affects your health. So self-preservation for me is taking time off social media and intense physical spaces to write, read, travel, listen to music, and spend time with loved ones and drive. Self-preservation is everything, definitely.


Twitter: @RuthSutoye



Image: Courtesy of Ruth Sutoyé


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