Maeve Higgins Will Make You Laugh (and Cry) About Immigration
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
WS: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and this is But That’s Another Story. When I first moved to New York, I found myself living in a one-bedroom at the mouth of the midtown tunnel. It was the mid-1980s and New York City was a different New York. This was Bright Lights Big City, not Sex and the City New York. The economy was booming. Since I couldn’t afford the rent, I shared the apartment with one of my dearest friends, Andy. I paid a bit more and had the bedroom; he slept on a futon sofa in the living room. To economize on space, we shared everything. Well, we had our own clothes and toothbrushes. But we shared everything else. Pastries. Television shows. Winter coats. Shaving cream. And books. Especially books.
If a book was going to take up precious space, both of us were going to read it. It was like a 24/7 live-in book club that was slightly out of sync. After many years of sharing, Andy finally decided he was ready for his own pad. And I could finally afford the rent by myself. But 30 years later, Andy and I often read the same books—not the same copies, but the titles. Sharing books is one of the best ways I know to stay as close to your best friends as you were when you were both starting out in a new city, and living in your first pad. And recently, I got to talking about moving to New York City with today’s guest.
MH: My name is Maeve Higgins. I’m an Irish writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, New York.
WS: Maeve Higgins has performed all over the world, but she’s been trying to get to New York ever since she was a kid. Even as she embraces life here in her forthcoming collection of essays, Maeve in America, her roots in Ireland are never far from her mind.
WS: Actually, before we start, I want to ask one question. C-O-B-H, pronounced how?
WS: Cove! That’s what I thought.
MH: Yeah, yeah.
So, Cobh is an island off an island—the big island being Ireland. And Cobh is in a harbor, which is why it’s in a cove. And it’s got a really deep and tragic history, Cobh does. It’s the last place Titanic stopped and sometimes I say before it, “I don’t want to ruin the end of the movie…” It’s like a terrible joke I make.
I think it was quite an idyllic childhood, actually, because we lived in the countryside and we had goats and chicken and I say that, but then sometimes I’m like, yeah, but remember that time when the goats got eaten by a fox and we saw all their dead bodies? I think living in New York and the contrast between life here—like the news at home was like a pipe burst. That was on the national evening news. A water pipe had burst. So sometimes I think when I remember my childhood, I get a bit rosy-tinted about it, but then I think, no, it actually was genuinely glowing.
WS: Glowing, and also a bit crowded.
MH: I have seven sisters and one brother. And I really loved just hanging out with my sisters. We were—were and still are—very, very close. And I think we all have the same sense of humor. And I think when you’re born into a big family… I don’t know if you have many brothers and sisters?
WS: Just older brother, younger sister.
MH: Oh, okay, so three! That’s nice. So, you know what it’s like to be in a little team.
MH: You know? So imagine like double that and then two more.
MH: So you do feel like you’re in a gang, all the time.
WS: And you were where in the order?
MH: I was third. We were divided into the biggies and the smallies and I was one of the biggies. And I think that we had to look after the smallies, always.
WS: But when Maeve wasn’t playing with and looking after her siblings, there was a good chance she was reading.
MH: As a child, I remember absolutely being obsessed with Roald Dahl—to the point of staying up late and sneaking a light into my room. And just… I couldn’t believe his writing.
I think he helped me through some childhood moments by magic. Where when you feel powerless or you feel like things are bad, that you can escape. I think Matilda did that. The Fantastic Mr. Fox did that. Even James and the Giant Peach. Actually, a lot of his books were victimized people using magic to escape. And that was when I was very young—like, the only bright spark I showed as a child was that I could read a lot and very young. Then I moved on to like C.S. Lewis when I was about seven, and I really loved all of those books. And then when I was nine, my family actually moved to Zimbabwe for a couple years and I remember we took the whole Louisa May Alcott collection with us. I read those obsessively, again and again. As like a 10, 11 year old, those were like my best friends. And those are the kind of ones that I remember making an impact on me, definitely. Those are the books that I read repeatedly.
WS: And living abroad for the first time sparked a lifelong interest in travel for Maeve.
MH: I think living somewhere else as a child, it’s really valuable experience for a child, especially coming from where we did, which was a small island. I think going to see where other people live and the ways other people live, and the fact that people are all different colors and religions, it’s very lucky—you’re very lucky if you get to do that. And I think it did long-term impact me in that I always am interested in: where did you come from, and why did you leave, and what’s your story?
WS: And so why did you come to the United States?
MH: So I came to New York, I think because I always had a romantic idea of being a writer in New York City. I do think it was that simple. I think Nora Ephron has a lot to answer for, and A.J. Liebling, and there’s such a rich history here, of course. So that’s why I came here, pretty baldly for better opportunities, too. I had been living in Ireland and working in Dublin for 11 years and I had a TV show there and I had a radio series there and was doing tours, stand up tours. So it was a combination of all those things and also just luck. I had this year-long visa so I said, I’ll just come to New York.
I emailed a guy I know here—I was sort of friends with him. I said, do you have a spare room? He was like, weird, my roommate just left. You can come and live here. And it was a room in Brooklyn, where I’ve stayed. I haven’t stayed in that room because that was a very strange place to live. There was a child upstairs and her name was Maeve too, and that was unsettling because I’d hear her mother just being like, “Maeve! Stop that!” And I’d be like, what? I’m just trying to write.
WS: As she navigated her new city, Maeve thought of herself as an immigrant—but it quickly became apparent that she was the only one who thought of herself that way.
MH: It’s funny because there’s so much talk of immigrants these days. And I even got a baseball cap that says, “I am an immigrant,” because it’s so funny to me when I talk to born-Americans, they’re like, oh no, you’re not an immigrant. You don’t have to call yourself that. Because it’s become this sort of slur—and for good reason, right? Because of the language around immigrants has really gotten so dark and so associated with crime and all of these things that aren’t even true. But there’s been a very successful campaign in the past two years to make it that way. So now I’m kind of saying, look, I am an immigrant, but just because I’m white and European and because it was easy for me to move here, I try not to forget that if it had been me 150 years ago, I think my experience would have been quite different. Probably not as bad, though. Say now, if I was a Syrian child, I wouldn’t even be allowed in—like Syrians are currently banned. And so I think part of me always wants to make the argument: listen, this could’ve been me 150—but a lot of people don’t even have that opportunity now, you know?
WS: And soon, Maeve found that she couldn’t stop thinking about immigration.
MH: When I first moved to New York, one of the big things I noticed was I had gotten in and lots of other people hadn’t, I guess? I got really interested in that because I was like, wow, I’m welcomed here and I have this visa—I can come and go freely—and these people have been living here since they were kids. And they’re more American than me, certainly, but I have all these advantages over them. So it was just this curiosity that wouldn’t let me go about other people from other places. And I think New York does that to you too. You’re just on the subway and there’s just all of these faces and languages and colors, and you’re just like, who are you and where did you come from? And I think somebody who is a storyteller too, there’s just going to be a better story from someone who’s off and left everything than somebody who hasn’t.
WS: When we come back from the break, Maeve finds a way to explore those stories—and then finds a book that makes her think differently about how her own fits in.
WS: Maeve Higgins had arrived in New York to find herself obsessed with stories about immigration—and how so many differed from her own. And soon, she figured out a way to follow her curiosity.
MH: I’d been asked to do so many podcasts, I think just because I’m a comedian. Comedy podcasts and huge. It’s a booming industry. And I never wanted to do one before, but then I thought, wait, if I could just do kind of a comedy podcast about immigration, that way it could be a platform for other people’s stories too. And I could also hear a lot of the drumbeat that’s gotten so loud now, which was anti-immigration in this country. And it was kind of blowing my mind, just the way undocumented people were treated didn’t seem to be the biggest story. And there was just such a gap in knowledge of what it was like to be an immigrant here.
WS: And figuring out a way to make humor and immigration coexist in the podcast, also called Maeve in America, was not as difficult as it might seem.
MH: I think humor and immigration actually are not far apart. Like I remember talking to my sister’s friend and he’s Syrian. He was saying that he was chatting to a girl—I guess chatting her up, right? And he was asking her about her tattoos and she said, oh, where’s your accent from? And he was like, ugh, here we go. Because I think if you’re a young person and you’re Syrian and you’re just trying to have a regular conversation, but then you say, I’m Syrian—there’s going to be this reaction. There’s going to be either a kind of a scared, or maybe a sad, or a pitiful, or—there’s going to be some reaction. It’s never just going to be like, oh, cool, I’m from Florida. This woman immediately started weeping. She started showing him YouTube videos of atrocities in Syria! Now, this man has been through a lot, right? He knows what’s happening! He didn’t need to see them and he didn’t need to comfort like, a white lady about what was happening in Syria. He literally just wanted to get her number.
When you talk to immigrants, there’s tons of stories like that where it’s just like, funny things happen in life no matter what’s happening in your life. And I just thought it would be cool to share that. And I think humor is very humanizing, too. I think it’s really hard to sort of negate somebody as a person if you’ve shared a laugh with them.
WS: After Maeve in America finished its run, Maeve still couldn’t shake her interest in immigration. Though she usually favored nonfiction books, she came across Exit West, a new novel by Mohsin Hamid. The book follows a young couple who are able to escape the civil war going on in their city through a series of magic doors, portals that open up and allow them to flee. And though she had already immersed herself in the topic, the novel offered a new perspective for Maeve.
MH: What got to me about the book was this new way of imagining what migration could look like. Because I always get stuck in my head when people are like, well, what are you going to do? There has to be borders. There has to be fences. And I’m like, I don’t think so… But this book, I think because it’s fiction, it just let me have a new way to think about migration.
You know, something that I hadn’t fully appreciated and still am just understanding now is that people don’t leave because they always want to. Like one of the characters in the book, I feel like he probably would have stayed, like he was pretty happy there. But he had to leave. But then his girlfriend in the book, she like did great—it was really good for her that she got an opportunity to leave. And you can see her growing and getting stronger, even through all of this tumult that’s happening in her life. So I think something that I learned from reading that book was that it’s not always a story of victims—that we need to be kind of them and that it’s like a moral responsibility. Often, they’re heroes, actually, of their own stories. And it would be our privilege and to our great advantage to welcome them in. It’s not like, oh, we’re so good to do this.
It’s like, you would be so lucky to get this person to be a part of your community, even for a few years. I think another thing is that I was like, oh, yeah, not everybody wants to leave. There’s this feeling especially in America, where it’s like, everybody wants to get here, everybody wants to be here. But often it’s like, no, they’d be pretty happy at home. It’s just that they kind of have to come. So that’s something I have to relearn all the time. Because I think I grew up being so exposed to American culture and like, America is the best place in the world, and I still think that—like, I moved here myself. So, I think it’s important for me to be like, oh, yeah, like the West isn’t the best. It’s just one other place.
WS: Reading the novel also made Maeve consider the merits of fiction versus nonfiction—and sparked a comparison to one of the most beloved pieces of American fiction: Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.
MH: Something that I find really hard to do is to try and make people care about something I think they should care about. And it doesn’t work if you just yell at them. It doesn’t work if you’re like, can’t you see how important this is? People’ll be like, sure… sure, I promise I’ll read that 6,000 word piece you just sent me, Maeve. I look forward to it. People just have so much going on and if it doesn’t affect them directly, they’re not inclined to feel it. And I think with To Kill a Mockingbird, that opened a lot of people’s eyes because… I don’t know why, actually. I don’t know why people could feel it when it wasn’t about them, but I think it helped them to understand what it was like for others. And I’m thinking more and more because I’m always coming from a place of nonfiction—like my comedy is about me and my life and then the podcast was interviewing real people about their stories, and everything was fact checked and we included like the histories of the countries they came from… And I was just like, when you hear the truth, you’re going to think differently. But now I’m more like, hmm, I don’t know that that works, actually.
It kind of gets at people sideways—like it kind of wriggles into their heart in a way that they weren’t expecting. And maybe that can help empathy and help to change their attitudes a bit more.
WS: And that’s something Maeve will take with her as she continues with new projects focused on immigration.
MH: It’s vital to believe that everything can be turned around, you know? I think it’s really lazy to think that things have to stay the way they are. And so I love when writing does that. I love when writing suddenly twists and illuminates this whole other set of possibilities that you hadn’t thought of.
This book is definitely a good tool in imagining a better and a more humane response to immigration. If you just see on the news like, oh, 18 people were killed in a car bombing in Pakistan or whatever, it’s hard for us—because we’re just human with like tiny brains—to think like oh, that was like a girl who had like, a really funny laugh and like when she laughed, it would make her friends laugh because she had a funny laugh. You know, just small, human details that just get lost. I think it’s really hard to write somebody off if you know these small things about them. Like if you know that they give the end of the their yogurt carton to their dog, or whatever it is. It’s really hard to then be like, oh, that’s just a person in a life jacket on a dingy, that would never be me. Because you’re like, oh, that could be me. You know?
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino, Alex Abnos, and Becky Celestina. Thanks to Maeve Higgins and Rebecca Marsh. If you’d like to learn more about the books we mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at AnotherStory@macmillan.com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks.