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Maeve Higgins wants more immigrants to be able to tell their stories

In her new book, “Maeve in America,” the comedian and author tells hers.

Maeve Higgins wants more immigrants to be able to tell their stories
[Image: courtesy of Penguin]

Maeve Higgins is an alien of extraordinary ability. That designation may sound like she’s anchoring an action-packed Marvel super-franchise, but really it just means that the comedian and author is legally permitted in the U.S. on a highly prized O-1B visa (for individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts). Whenever she considers the millions of ineligible would-be immigrants from President Trump’s so-called shithole countries, though, all she can wonder is: “Why me, and why not them?”

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The second half of that question has no satisfying answer. It’s been a profoundly complicated issue even when whoever the current president is doesn’t constantly betray white nationalist leanings. Higgins fully resolves the “Why me?” portion of her query, though, in a new collection of comedic essays that reflect America through an immigrant’s eyes. Anyone who delves into the compulsively readable Maeve in America would surely pronounce her abilities extraordinary enough to game any visa system, no matter how flawed. And perhaps whoever reads it might also think more about the talents of every phantom immigrant he or she will never meet, because they’re not allowed to be here.

“There’s a huge, very strong, extremely well-produced and well-funded narrative coming from Washington that immigrants are bad–not just illegal immigrants but immigrants in general,” Higgins says. “I think more Americans finding out it’s not true would help everybody.”

[Photo: courtesy of Jeannie O’Brien/Penguin]
Disabusing Americans of false notions around immigrants has been one of Higgins’s major pursuits since she left the town of Cobh, in Ireland, to come to New York, in 2014. Back home, the comedian had worked her way up through the comedy-festival circuit, and eventually won awards for starring in the prank TV show Naked Camera. Upon arriving in the U.S., she had to make a name for herself all over again, one stand-up set and New York Times essay at a time. Once she’d won some acclaim and made high-profile friends such as Neil deGrasse Tyson–with whom she now co-hosts StarTalk on NatGeo–competing parties approached her about launching a podcast. By then, she’d heard so many interesting immigrant stories from fellow travelers that she decided to make a podcast that would help get those stories out into the world.

“Even when Obama was president, you heard a lot about immigrants but you didn’t really hear from immigrants,” Higgins recalls. “So I thought, ‘How cool to have a person telling their story on each episode of a show?’ ”

She chalks up the dearth of immigrant-centered storytelling in America to the fact that most media is dominated by native-born white people. It’s not that immigrants are less talented or lacking in tales to tell, it’s just that the power dynamics of show business too often prevent them from doing so. When Higgins started working on Maeve in America with First Look Media, she and her producers trawled immigrant communities and the organizations that support them to find people with compelling stories they were willing to share. It was a heavily researched, shoe-leather-intensive project. The teaser for the first episode dropped online on October 23, 2016–about two weeks before America took a dark turn many never expected would actually happen.

Higgins remembers crying in tandem with her Uber driver on her way home from watching the election results. She quickly rallied, though, and spent the next day on a mission. Hers was a pro-immigration podcast, and the country she’d begun to call her home had just elected an anti-immigration leader. There was work to be done. She and a producer walked around Fifth Avenue to get a temperature read from people on the street. Although most of the interviewees spoke through the shroud of post-election despair one might expect to find in Manhattan, not all did. Higgins was stunned to find a nattily dressed man near the Flatiron building who was absolutely thrilled with the outcome. (“My ancestors came here the right way, get in line!” he said, along with every other cliché about bad hombres stealing jobs.) It was a wake-up call, and a bad omen for Higgins’s goals for her nascent podcast.

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“A lot of Americans don’t seem to appreciate how difficult it is to get into America and stay here,” she says. “When I tell people I have to get my visa renewed again, they’re shocked. So I was like, ‘Oh when they hear this podcast, they’ll understand!’ I was definitely naïve. Trying to make people care about something that doesn’t affect them, I have not cracked that yet.”

[Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images for Vulture Festival]
The first and only season of her show concluded in the spring of 2017. By then, Higgins had found another venue for changing people’s minds about immigration: a book. Sharing a title with the now-defunct podcast, Maeve in America: Essays by a Girl From Somewhere Else deftly blends the personal with the political to create a vibrant portrait of what it means to live in America as an outsider. The author nimbly weaves between deeply reported pieces–such as the one comparing her journey to America with that of Annie Moore, the first Irish immigrant to pass through Ellis Island in 1892–and lighter but still incisive musings on making small talk in the States. The topics she chooses have the wide range of a shotgun blast, but they uniformly extend her podcast’s message of immigrants’ undeniable humanity.

Although Higgins pitched her book as a collection of funny essays, her editor at Penguin encouraged the comedian to incorporate as many serious experiences and aspects of her nature as she pleased. The resulting seriocomic alchemy is probably best illuminated by a piece about when Higgins was asked to lead a comedy workshop in Iraq in the spring of 2016. Here, she documents the joy her wards took in cracking jokes even during dangerous times. They were half an hour away from where ISIS was still firmly in control, and people in the area would make radio pranks on ISIS terrorists.

Having witnessed people using comedy to get through war, Higgins has some thoughts on the American approach to humor during the Trump era, which is a different shade of bleak.

“I think comedy takes a lot of credit here where it’s not really due,” she says. “People were like, ‘Yes! Jon Stewart! Satire’s gonna save us all!’ But it’s not. You need to back it up with real action. I think comedy is a nice way to blow off steam and it’s a useful way of social cohesion with your tribe, but it’s not going to save us. Direct action will.” She adds, “My goal is to use my platform to make a bigger platform for immigrants in general, not to make fun of Stephen Miller’s voice.”

To that end, Higgins has several suggestions for how Americans newly concerned with the plight of immigrants can spring into action. She recommends supporting organizations like Immigrant Coalition of New York and Define American, accompanying people to immigration hearings, and translating for them, if possible. However, she also notes that even small changes in day-to-day life can make an impact. Looking out for vulnerable immigrants in one’s workplace or school or community in general, and just listening to their stories–even small actions like these might make people feel more respected and welcome.

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Considering how hostile the American government currently acts toward immigrants–just this week, Stephen Miller pushed a policy to make it more difficult for legal immigrants to stay–it’s natural to wonder whether Higgins would have been as eager to move to 2014 America if it more closely resembled the 2018 version.

She would have.

“I have a dog and a really tight community,” the comedian says. “And there are a lot of good things happening here too and I wouldn’t want to negate them or the people doing them. I have a sister who won’t visit because she can’t bear the current government, and I hate that my taxes are going toward ICE, this militarized border patrol. It’s conflicting, but I love America. I feel so lucky to be here.”

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