Interviews

“Maeve in America”: Heartfelt Tales on the Bumpy Road to Immigration

The story of the United States has always been the story of immigrants. Which means we’ve both embraced the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and hung up a nativist “No Vacancy” sign and sent the unwashed back to whatever hell they were trying to escape. Both acceptance and rejection of immigrants are American traditions. The latest chapter was, of course, the Trump Administration’s haphazard unconstitutional cruel-on-its-face Executive Order banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries that won’t be needing luxury hotels anytime soon.

Maeve Higgins is an immigrant. But she’s from Ireland and not Muslim, so the red, white, and blue carpet was rolled out when she moved to New York City in 2014. Still, she has the eye and empathy of a national newcomer. As an insider-outsider, she became fascinated by the Gotham stew, a city of more than three-million immigrants (and another 500,000-750,000 of their undocumented brethren), more than 800 languages, and one kick-ass Steve Earle ode to the whole cultural cacophony.

Higgins was a successful stand-up comic overseas and her profile has only grown since she passed through Ellis Isla–err…JFK. She’s appeared on shows like “Inside Amy Schumer,” written pieces for the New York Times such as the lovely “Two Irish Girls Who Made it to New York” about her homelass Annie Moore, and authored two essay collections, Off You Go and We Have a Good Time… Don’t We?

Last fall, she took her fascination to the airwaves and launched the podcast Maeve in America. Higgins sense of storytelling is terrific — she clearly relishes bringing these immigrant tales to you — but the podcast’s sense of timing in the Trump era is, like a giant stupid expensive wall to his diehard supporters, everything. We met up before her monthly “Cool Kids” show with Britain-cum-Brooklyn writer Jon Ronson. Maeve in America returned for its second season on Valentine’s Day, with bittersweet tales of love and arranged marriage. Higgins explained why the podcast is so important in the here and now, why pulling up the ladder is as common as dropping a rope, Ichthyphobia, and the Bizarro World Fox News version of Maeve in America.

First things first, though. Take a few minutes and get to know Maeve a little better through her stand-up. Here she is performing on A Prairie Home Companion.

SIGNATURE: How would you describe your comedy?

MAEVE HIGGINS: It’s observational, low-key, generally family-friendly. I don’t work blue. Other than hosting this show with Jon Ronson, I don’t actually do a lot of stand-up anymore. I’ve been doing it for ten years and I’m interested in a lot of other things at the moment. Comedy is like a bad boyfriend I keep trying to break up with because it’s an unhealthy relationship.

SIG: Are you writing a lot these days?

MH: I try because even though I find writing really hard, it’s very satisfying. My first two books were published in the UK and Ireland, and I have a deal with Penguin to write a third one in America. I should be sitting down to do that but the podcast is taking up most of my time. Unintentionally so. Comedians are used to doing a bunch of different things, so I thought the podcast would just be another thing. It’s taken over, every day, every night. I love it, but didn’t expect it to be quite so time-consuming.

SIG: What is the new book going to be about?

MH: I said to the editor, “Why don’t you choose the best parts of my first two books and I’ll add an American section, and we’ll be good, no?” They said “Uh, Nooooo.”

It’ll be funny essays, maybe a little more political. My editor lets me follow my own curiosity, which is cool.

SIG: Have you done much political comedy?

MH: No. Right now though, I feel like we kind of have to. Things are turbulent and it feels fake not to talk about what’s going on. Immigration is certainly topical.

SIG: I’d say so.

MH: I actually had the idea for the podcast over a year ago, even before Donald Trump called Mexicans ‘rapists’ as a launchpad to his presidential run. I’ve been living here for three years and in meeting other immigrants, I realized how easy it was for me to come to America. I have an O-1 Visa for ‘Individuals With Extraordinary Ability,’ in my case, I had a good career at home and simply got letters from friends in the industry. It was straight-forward, which got me thinking. “Why me? Why not them?” It opened a can of brain worms.

I love podcasts, but I didn’t want to just be a comic commenting on immigration issues. I want the people I speak with to tell their stories, to get their voices in listener’s ears, and to hear how they’re being affected. It makes for a much better show. Here’s a good example. I got to interview one of my dream guests in January, Dan-El Peralta, the Princeton professor who wrote Undocumented. He’s erudite and funny, but the day we spoke was the day Jeff Sessions was nominated for attorney general. In the front of his book, Dan-El has a quote from a 2006 Sessions speech from the Senate floor in which the new attorney general said people coming from the Dominican Republic have no skills to benefit America. Dan-El was understandably devastated. It set the tone for our conversation. I want Maeve in America to have levity and comedy, but right now, these problems are so real. It’s something I’ve bumped up against. Mona Chalabi, our show’s data expert, is a good friend of mine. She cracks me up and we have great rapport, but right now, she’s also a Muslim immigrant living in fear. I can’t come up and be like “I’m going to tickle you now.”

SIG: Chalabi wrote “Americans Are More Likely to Like Muslims if They Know One,” which I think is a real strength of the podcast. You’re introducing immigrants of all different backgrounds in a more intimate way than a newscast…

MH: We have a Syrian man coming on who initially didn’t want to talk, which I totally get, but I convinced him to let me interview him at his home and work. And this was before the Muslim travel ban came down. He’s already nervous, but I told him when people meet you on the podcast, they’ll see you’re a regular guy who is obsessed with his one-year-old, trying to quit smoking, and works in a luggage store. Even though he himself can’t travel anywhere.

You hear ‘Syrian asylum seeker’ and you think either someone is a victim, or a danger. Nope. He’s a teddy bear of a guy who learned about New York from the show “Friends.”

Putting a personal face on this big loaded word ‘immigrant’ was our intention from the beginning. I’m an immigrant and I was reluctant to call myself that at first. “I’m an ex-pat, a cosmopolitan living in New York City.” No, I’m an immigrant.

SIG: Where did you grow up in Ireland and did you always have wanderlust?

MH: I’m from Cobh in the south of Ireland, which is where the seaport was for the one million people, in a country of only six million, who left. My dad is in construction, so we weren’t world-travelers, but he did get a job building a hotel in Zimbabwe. At the age of nine, I lived there for a couple of year. My whole family of six moved from rural Ireland, and my baby sister was born in Africa. I realized years later that was when my eyes were first opened. “Oh, there are other ways to live.” If you never go anywhere, you just think that’s how it is. Getting a break from a tiny island, within Ireland, where everyone is related to each other, gave me the chance to meet people of another race and see that perhaps we weren’t living in the center of the universe.

I’ve been lucky in the last few years, I’ve gotten to go to interesting places. I taught a workshop in Iraq last year and went on holiday to Iran for a month. I’m a generally nosey person, curious about how people live. Joking around is a great way to make human connections.

SIG: What’s your summation thus far of Irish-Americans?

MH: Irish America really baffles me. There seems to be a weird disconnect of holding onto values that are no longer held in Ireland. The other day Paul Ryan tweeted that he’s so proud of his Irish roots. I’m mortified for him. And I’m afraid to check if Steve Bannon is Irish. I assume he is, he looks like every drunken stereotype.

Last year was the deadliest year for migrants in the Mediterranean, why can’t you see, that was us? It’s good to talk to people. Sure, a woman wears a hijab, but she’s a really great aunt who eats too much chocolate. Tiny silly human things. A thing we’ve explored on the show is a concept I was ignorant of, pulling up the ladder behind you. Every wave of immigrants have done it, but the Irish did it big time. So quickly. Ireland isn’t doing enough for refugees, which is ironic, because we had those coffin ships as well. So many parallels, the echoes of the past are getting louder.

SIG: Displaced tribalism is indeed a strange phenomenon.

MH: For Irish America, it sometimes comes close to white pride, which is sad. The Ancient Order of Hibernians was set up to keep Catholic churches from getting burned, just like mosques and synagogues are being torched today. The AOH started in a good place to protect their faith and people, but became the group who wouldn’t let gay people march in the St. Patrick’s parade under their own banner. I don’t understand how people who have been the victim of bigotry turn around and become bigots. It should be the time to show how open-hearted we can be. Although, I realized a few days ago the last two presidents have a parent who was an immigrant and both have been very tough on immigrants.

SIG: Barack Obama deported more people than any other president, which may come as a surprise to some of your listeners, but I’m wondering if the immigrants you’ve spoken to even see a huge difference between him and Donald Trump…

MH: It’s been bad for a long time. I went to Friendship Park along the U.S.—Mexico border where immigrant families that have been split apart can talk to one another through the fence. It’s heartbreaking. Since Donald Trump was elected, I think regular Americans are waking up to the problems, but immigration policy has basically degenerated since George H.W. Bush, who was rather humane in his reform efforts. Trump’s rhetoric is really harmful and hurtful, but he’s just building on policies that were already in place.

I think President Obama was wonderful in many ways, but he fell down on immigration. And that isn’t just my opinion, it’s the opinion of an executive at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, whom I spoke with for a President’s Day podcast. He was disappointed that he couldn’t trust a president born in Kenya…

SIG: Birther jokes will never die.

MH: I think a lot of what Donald Trump is doing is just to scare people, on both sides. I have my doubts he thinks refugees are a real threat, but if he can frighten them into believing they can’t come to America, they’ll look elsewhere. There’s a bigger game being played.

The Executive Order has gotten a lot of people angry because of America’s religious freedom, but it troubles me there wasn’t a lot of fuss kicked up beforehand about how few Syrian refugees have been let into the country. My sister is a humanitarian and worked in Syria for years, now she’s in Jordan. They can’t get over how abandoned the Syrians have been all over the world, but especially in America which has plenty of room and a long history of taking in refugees. It’s shocking. Americans revere their Revolutionary War heroes, but ignore the fact that many of these Syrian refugees were fighting for their freedom. They could be killed or thrown into a horrible prison for changing their Facebook to an anti-Bashar status, but they did. Twelve percent of the country has been killed or injured in the conflict. Students willing to die for democracy, going against al-Assad? They’re extraordinary. We should be so lucky to have Syrians move to the United States.

SIG: Your episode with Nayyef Hrebid, a gay Iraqi who served as a wartime translator for U.S. troops, was a real eye-opener as to how hard it is to get into America. It took him years, and his husband even longer. Telling his story is important because there’s such a misconception out there about all these people coming in without a long vetting process…

MH: Before talking to Nayyef, I had no idea how long it took some people to get into the country, so it was an education for me as well. When I started the podcast, my instinct was that personal stories will help get the message out, immigrants are people just like us. But an instinct isn’t the same as hearing from a man who worked for the U.S., saved soldiers’ lives, had to wait years to come to America, and still couldn’t get his husband in even though he was about to be killed. Or Dan-El’s story about being undocumented the whole time he was in school… As someone who came here with papers, it’s hard for me to grasp how someone who was brought here as a toddler, went to school, got a job, and paid taxes, can’t just out their name on a list for citizenship. There is no list. No line to get in. No man to talk to.

SIG: Among the tough human dramasMaeve in America remains a lot of fun, it must be a kick to delve into these subcultures of subcultures in New York City.

MH: It’s brilliant. You really have to go digging. I insisted on a number of our producers being immigrants or children of immigrants because I don’t know what I don’t know.

I’m lucky to be in New York with all the different immigrant communities and organizations, but I am also fortunate to know people with direct ties to them to act as guides. There have been times when our producers have asked for “more Maeve,” and I certainly love to gab, but I’d rather hand off the mic. Listening is equally important. They can do justice to their own stories. Take the Christmas episode, I’d never heard of bunuelos, which are Colombian fried cheese balls, so we found a guy who makes them every year. I also didn’t have a clue that Polish people adopt a carp before Christmas, which I still wish I didn’t know. At the market in Greenpoint, it’s a nightmare. I should say I don’t like fish, they horrify me. Last time I went to an aquarium, I fainted. I hate them.

SIG: Have you found being Irish helps you get immigrants to open up?

MH: In the beginning, I had trouble getting in because I said the show was comedy. People were like, “No thanks.” Back in October, Fox News did a hit job on Chinatown at the same time we were doing a story on a Chinese-American. I needed to speak to historians about Chinatown and got turned away, “Sorry, not funny. Bye.” What I have found works is doing a lot of pre-interviews and outreach. It shows I’m not just in and out, for a quick thing. Each piece ends up having ten hours of raw material. I need context to then add the comedy, which isn’t going to happen in a basic fifteen-minute interview. It takes a while to get the good nuggets, to get to the deeper truth. We talk to so many people and they’re so generous. There’s 60 million immigrant stories out there; I’m obsessed with all of them.

SIG: Are there any books you’ve read lately that inspired  Maeve in America?

MH: Absolutely. Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War is amazing. The Upstairs Wife about women in Pakistan is another one I love, and How the Irish Became White is fascinating. Those books are windows into worlds. There are also novels, like say Jane Eyre. What’s always interesting to me is someone who leaves their life behind and starts over.

SIG: This might be a corny question, but walking over here I saw the Scozzari Bakery exterior that was painted in my neighborhood for the movie, so I have to ask, does the Colm Toibin book Brooklyn (or its film adaptation) do anything for you?

MH: My friends are always teasing me that it’s my life story, “Oh Maeve, you have a boyfriend in every country and live in Brooklyn and blah, blah, blah…” But no I wasn’t interested in the story. A woman, written by a man, whose biggest struggle is that she has to learn to eat pasta? It’s that mawkish Irish diaspora weeping-in-a-pub stuff Americans love. But then on the plane, I was bawling my eyes out watching it.

She left from my hometown and I identified way too closely with her. I’m privileged and have options that a lot of my guests don’t, but I do feel close to them in that I left all of my family behind as well. I can’t see my favorite baby in the world grow up. I’m not going to see Sadie change from a six-month-old to a one-and-a-half-year-old. I use to minimize my own experience, that everything I did was by choice, but actually, many elements of immigrant stories are universal.

SIG: Lastly, what is your best-case scenario hope for Maeve in America? I could definitely see you going to the Anthony Bourdain route…

MH: Maybe I’ll take it to Fox News. In that version, it will be me meeting an immigrant every week and asking them to please go back where they came from.

My biggest hope right now is to pick up more listeners. My second hope is to get more listeners with different viewpoints and from other parts of the country. The show has done well in Brooklyn, and in comedy circles, among a left-leaning crowd, but what’s the point of doing the show if we aren’t reaching an audience that might not encounter immigrants on a regular basis? I’ve heard from immigrants themselves who like it, but not from someone whose mind was changed somehow. I don’t expect many listeners to have a Road to Damascus moment, but we’re working so hard to get these stories told and I want them to be heard all over, by all kinds of people. If it isn’t working this way, maybe TV, but I feel like podcast is the venue because it’s such an intimate way to hear these American stories.

Oh wait. My biggest hope is to get my visa renewed in August. That one’s super important.