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NYC-based comedian tackles immigration, misogyny in new book

Brooklyn BookBeat

November 1, 2018 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Author and comedian Maeve Higgins. Photo by Jeannie O’Brien

Maeve Higgins was a bestselling memoirist and comedian in her native Ireland when, at the age of 31, she left home in search of something more. In her new book, “Maeve in America: Essays by a Girl from Somewhere Else”, Maeve tells the story of finding herself, literally and figuratively, in New York City.

At once smart, curious and compassionate — and unafraid of mixing the personal and the political — “Maeve in America” examines our cultural climate with humor, heart and honesty, and offers fresh and timely insights about women’s lives today.

“Maeve in America” is a new kind of coming-of-age narrative, a record of what happens when you try — to grow up, to live your dream life (even if that dream is as simple as “no more living with mice”). Self-aware and laugh-out-loud funny, this collection is also a fearless exploration of the awkward questions in life.

Is clapping too loudly at a gig a good enough reason to break up with somebody? What kind of shelter dog would you be? Is it ever really possible to leave home? With her warmth and wit — not to mention razor-sharp insight — Higgins tackles topics like immigration, feminism, misogyny, body image and depression without missing a beat (or a laugh). Whether she’s writing about Rent the Runway, why dolphins are the worst, or the Muslim travel ban, Maeve’s humor and knack for keen observation shine through. Among the many topics she discusses:

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“Maeve in America” is a revealing portrait of a comic figuring out how to make sense of this world and an outsider uniquely skilled at shrewd observations of our current American moment.

Higgins is a contributing writer for The New York Times and the host of the hit podcast “Maeve in America: Immigration IRL.” She is a comedian who has performed all over the world, including in her native Ireland, Edinburgh, Melbourne and Erbil. Now based in New York, she cohosts Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, both the podcast and the TV show on National Geographic and has also appeared on Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer” and on WNYC’s “2 Dope Queens.”

In a Q&A session with Penguin books, Higgins spoke discussed the book, her new life in New York City and her career.


Penguin Books: You are a bestselling memoirist and comedian in your native Ireland, but at 31, you decided to leave home to move to New York City. What inspired that big change? What were your first impressions of America, and how have they changed in the intervening years?

Maeve Higgins: I wanted to live in New York and be a writer forever – the romance of the idea really got me good! People like Nora Ephron, Maeve Brennan, and E.B. White just made it sound like heaven. And it is like heaven, just with terrible roommates and Shake Shack. I love Ireland, but I think it was immensely helpful to get 5,000 miles away from it, because it was too close to properly see before. It’s the opposite here. I need to be on the ground and examining all the minutiae to understand what makes this country work. And also drinking all the peanut butter shakes, naturally.

I arrived pretty wide-eyed about the country, seeing it as a land of opportunity. For me, it has been, but pretty quickly I started to wonder, Why me? Why not everyone else? And that question led to me writing and making podcasts and joining in with all the other immigrants and citizens who are curious about this country we love, and want to see it clearly—with all its flaws and broken promises out in the open. So that’s my big answer.

On a smaller scale, the first thing that I noticed at JFK Airport was that there’s a gap between the cubicle door and the door frame. In every other country I’ve visited, nobody can see in to the cubicle. Now I understand that this is to prevent drug use, but I will never forget tilting my head to the side and peering in at some poor lady taking a dump and her yelling at me and me thinking, Oh my god, where am I?

Penguin: In addition to being a writer, you are a stand-up comic who regularly performs around the country. Who are your comedic inspirations? How does your approach differ in writing jokes for the stage versus the page?

MH: Sometimes I feel like a toddler trying every way she can think of to express herself. Like, I would grab chalk and bubbles if I thought it could help me figure out how something works, whether it’s inside or outside of me, and share that discovery with anyone who cares to listen. The first time I saw stand-up was on VHS when I was around 16, back in Ireland where I grew up. It was an old Eddie Murphy special called Raw that’s considered a classic now, although in hindsight it has its problems.

I loved it, but did not for a second ever picture myself getting on a stage and telling jokes like that. I got the message, from many sources, that standup was a man’s game. However, I knew I was funny, and I knew I loved making people laugh. I was 24 when I first ventured onstage, and still do not remember the first year of open spots and clubs, because I was so scared! I gradually found comedians with voices and outlooks I loved and still love, like Maria Bamford and Margaret Cho, and figured out my own voice too.

I’m quite scatter-brained and found it very difficult to commit to writing when I was in my 20s, but stand-up was perfect because you could just have a tiny idea and then boom, that night you’re working it out onstage. An audience naturally forces you to find the funny, and do it fast, so I think a lot of my stories lacked any depth.

Writing lets me take my time and look at stories from all angles. It’s harder for me than stand-up because it brings up all sorts of realizations and feelings that can’t be swiped away with a punchline. That’s why I love it too, of course, because it’s helpful and makes me a better thinker. Also, with stand-up you’re always on the road and by yourself, but with writing I get to stay home with my dog and my boyfriend (who is an air-conditioner).

Penguin: In our current political moment, immigration is a widely discussed topic, with the proposed Mexican border wall, ICE crackdowns, and the fight to save DACA making headlines every day. As an immigrant yourself, this issue is significant to you personally, and something you explore both in the book and on your podcast, Maeve in America: Immigration IRL. In what way do you want to change the conversation around immigration? What kind of stories are you hoping to tell, and what do you want to achieve by telling them?

MH: We started the podcast right after Trump was elected and I was frantically worried about what might happen to immigrants under his administration. Today it’s far worse than I thought it would be — specifically with family separation at the border and threats to immigrants in the military — and we’re not even two years in. Often I see immigrants being talked about in the media, but not heard from directly. My guiding principle was ‘nothing about us without us’ so the podcast is immigration stories told by the people who’ve lived them.

I interviewed a whole host of people: a Syrian dad trying to quit smoking, a gay Iraqi who works at Home Depot, and a Chinese grandmother who put 2,000 girls through school. I hoped that when American-born citizens heard these voices and stories, so honest, messy, sad and joyful, they would start to care about something that doesn’t affect them. Despite so many Americans with immigrant ancestry, it is hard to break through—and if I’m honest, I don’t know if I succeeded. The small silver lining of the horrors facing many immigrants today is that Americans are finally paying attention now.

Penguin: There’s a wonderful essay in the book called “Stormy with the Calm Eyes,” which follows your experience meeting — and relating deeply — to a dull, unassuming shelter dog named Stormy. Since then, you have adopted your own dog. What has that experience been like?

MH: I used to walk these shelter dogs and they were adorable, but had a lot of issues because of their time stuck in shelters and previous bad owners. Last October I found myself on a train to New Jersey where I went into a trance and accidentally got a puppy, and she turned into a giant dog. That sounds irresponsible, and I guess it was, but it worked out really well! She just turned one and is 60 pounds of pure furry serenity, the perfect antidote to the anxiety that rattles around my brain for much of the time. Her name is Shadow and she really likes hanging out with toddlers and listening to audiobooks… or wait, that’s me. She likes lamb lung and chasing things.

Penguin: In “Pen as Gun,” you recall your time teaching at a comedy workshop in Iraq, and how it made you question the meaning of comedy — its place and its power in dark times. You write, “When things get bad, really bad, where does comedy fit in?” What is the role of art in times of darkness, tragedy, or oppression? Do you see your work in comedy as a responsibility, an indulgence, or something else entirely?

MH: Comedians give ourselves a lot of credit for speaking truth to power, but I would argue that we don’t do it enough. Most comedians are just focused on their careers and getting a TV show, etc. Same here, so for much of the time I count myself amongst them. We are a grubby people-pleasing profession! But the larger question, of freedom of expression and allowing people to stumble and fail and try again in their creative endeavors, is an important one. The workshop I did in Iraq was fascinating because the comedy writers, cartoonists, and performers I met there were struggling with the same questions any other artist around the world has to struggle with. It’s just that they were doing so in a physical and psychic space that was frightening and dangerous. Their tools remained the same

though: creativity, imagination, bravery and ingenuity. Also, lots of fart jokes, which are funny everywhere. I think a lot about joy as a form of resistance. It’s something I learned about from Black Lives Matter and from the undocumented community, specifically Yosi Reyes, who started the hashtag #undocujoy. Having fun and being happy, even for a moment, is a way of being powerful and free.

Penguin: You come from a large Irish family — six sisters and a gaggle of nieces and nephews—and write that in your family, being funny is prized above all else. What is your family’s sense of humor like, and how did that shape your own comedy? At what point did you know that being funny was your superpower, and something you wanted to pursue as a career?

MH: Baked goods and being funny are the lifeblood of my family. Almost all of us are funny, except for one sister. Sadly, she knows who she is. (Just kidding, she’s quite funny too.) Our humor tends to be quite sharp. None of us are the type of funny that holds forth in a bar — we’re a sneakier type of funny, with under-the-breath observations and deadly accurate imitations. This could be because we’re almost all women, and because of misogyny, we learned to hide that particular superpower.

I really never decided to pursue a comedy career, I just couldn’t figure out what to do for work. I studied photography, but didn’t love it. In the end I just kept doing comedy and it lead to a variety of weird jobs and lots of travelling and some really beautiful people I’m glad to call my comedy community. I realized early on that many comedians are not funny; they’re just persistent and confident and learn the rhythm of comedy. None of them make me laugh as much as my sisters Lilly and Rosie do. When they aren’t too exhausted from looking after children and working full time, they can take a person to pieces with their smart mouths in a matter of seconds, and I love it!

My mind boggles when I see how dominant certain tropes have become in comedy. You know, schlubby white guys chase unattainable women, quirky girls accidentally attain success, etc. — these bore me to no end. I’d rather spend five minutes listening in at the beauty salon my sister works at than an hour watching the latest Judd Apatow vehicle. Not that he’s bad or anything — it’s just that that kind of comedy is ubiquitous and homogenous, and I think comedy should reflect everybody, not just the same people over and over again. I do think things are changing though, and I’m so glad when people push their way in, because from a selfish point of view, that means I get to see and hear really funny stuff from new perspectives. Atlanta is brilliant, I really enjoy Glow, and essayists like Sloane Crosley and podcasters like Nicole Byer make me laugh a LOT.

Penguin: You write movingly about your love for your five nieces, your desire to protect them, and your role as an aunt. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing young girls today, and what will you make sure your nieces know as they are growing up in this world?

MH: It took me years to figure out why I had to work harder than my male peers, but was still not recognized in the ways they were, career-wise and financially. It took a lot of reading, talking to other women and understanding history and societal norms to accept that I was never — and probably will never be — on an equal footing with them. Even after I realized, I didn’t want to go on about it because my favorite thing to do is make people laugh and that is not a funny topic. I’m still figuring out how best to deal with sexism and misogyny. It’s a process, but basically I try to continue working at the highest level I can, and also to make sure I listen to and respect and work with other women. I also try to point misogyny out when I see it and to help men understand that when they undervalue women, everybody loses.

I love being an aunt. I have these five nieces who are so smart and gentle and fierce and funny, and while I want them to be unfettered by any cynicism I have picked up along the way, I also want them to understand what they are facing. The eldest is six now, so while I’m not reading Roxane Gay essays aloud to her just yet, I am making sure she sees her mother and aunts out there working, doing what they love, and shining a light on other women doing the same thing. I have nephews too, and I treat them just the same. It’s beautiful to see that children do not come readymade with biases, it truly gives me a lot of hope!

 


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