‘Maeve In America’ and Balancing Levity with Seriousness

Irish comic Maeve Higgins finds her voice and purpose in an ever-changing Donald Trump United States.

Maeve In America: Essays by a Girl from Somewhere Else
Maeve Higgins
Penguin Books
Aug 2018

One of the great benefits of our disposable entertainment culture these days is that the enormous wealth of available material has allowed us to not feel guilty about acquiring and removing product. Podcasts have been reproducing at an alarming rate over the past ten years. They have offered talented comics and monologists to find a broadcast (and in some cases, eventually print) audience. Those that don’t matter will fade away, but those that make a difference will always rise to the top. They will get book deals (Marc Marin, Phoebe Robinson, and Greg Proops among others), or (in the case of John Hodgman) continue a writing career under the guise of their podcasting persona (Judge John Hodgman). Not all of the podcasts effectively translate as books, but it’s an exciting development. Have a perspective, a clear and exciting thesis, hope the right person(s) comes along to help you, and your ideas could find a comfortable home in the old media of the printed page.

The 17 episode 2016-2017 run of Maeve In America, from Panoply media, features Irish comic monologist Maeve Higgins as she’s navigating her way in an America living under the stranglehold of Donald Trump. Higgins is ready-made for radio. It’s not just about her lovely lilting Irish accent. She’s having fun. She takes her time with each episode, profiling fellow comics and writers/intellectuals and immigrants, like Aparna Nancherla, Negin Farsad, and Mona Chalabi. Her discussions with these people are warm, relatable, humble, and illuminating. Who are we as strangers in a strange land? Is this journey in a new country just about knowing you will never fully fit in, or can you have fun in the process? Higgins’ podcast is equal parts fun, educational, and curious about how the process of adaptation is a lifetime journey.

With Maeve In America: Essays by a Girl from Somewhere Else, the clear and precise writing and infectious warmth so evident from Higgins’ literal (and figurative) voice finds a suitable home on the written page. This book is not a collection of transcripts from the podcast. More often than not, that approach can be clunky and expose a thin veneer covering the material. Only one of the 15 essays here, “Wildflowers”, deals with the making of the podcast. The refreshing twist here is that she takes a different route, shows us a deeper side of what was happening during the early stages of the podcast. When Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th US president, Higgins felt conflicted. “Comics taking themselves seriously have always made me laugh,” she writes about her approach to the topic of immigration. She visits Friendship Park, a small location straddling the US Border with Mexico:

“There’s an eerie contrast between the beach on the Mexican side… with picknickers and music and swimming, and the beach on the US side, deserted except for a couple of Border Patrol dune buggies…”

She comes to understand that cute human interest stories won’t make for a compelling podcast, at least for the time being. Struggling to maintain balance (levity with seriousness), and ignoring serious issues for the sake of a cheap laugh “…would be as empty and windy as that beach in San Diego.” She followed the story wherever it took her in those tumultuous days immediately following Trump’s inauguration, and she came to understand one clear truth: “I could not ignore the spasms and pain in the country I lived in. I had to follow the pain…”

It’s that last line which might be deadly for some essayists, but Higgins makes it her mission statement. Follow the pain, but don’t forget the joy. There are minor essays here, like “Swimming Against Dolphins”, that might seem shallow on first read but they will stay with the reader. She’s on a comic’s tour of Australia and New Zealand and contemplating swimming with what seem to be innocent beasts. “My face is so expressive,” she writes, that my sisters can tell what flavor ice cream I’m thinking about at any given moment.” In “Rent the Runway”, she takes us on a journey into the world of dress rentals. Will she drop a few hundred dollars on a nice dress for one night to attend a gala? In “Call Me Maeve”, she contemplates the meaning and pronunciation of her Irish name:

“Queen Maeve, the ‘Warrior Queen’ of the West of Ireland… had a Sheryl Sandberg attitude about gender equality and the pay gap. She leaned all the way in… [she] had five husbands over the course of her life, and one of them was a real troublemaker.”

There are a handful of other essays here that sail through the pages on a wealth of goodwill. “Summer Isn’t the Same Without You” excels because it goes beyond the apprehensions of swimsuits and body image issues and enters the realm of displacement. “This body isn’t me,” she writes. Later, when reflecting on darker times, she notes, “On days like that, I want out of my body.” It’s this balance between the usual routines of a stand-up comic (summer swimsuits) and gracefully arrives at some more profound truths.

Again, to say that they are minor does not mean they’re negligent. “Five Interactions, One Man” is probably the least successful of these light essays in that it doesn’t grow beyond the premise of its title. The same can also be applied to “Compliments Girl on your Kiss”. Beyond that, the lighter pieces are consistently good. “Are You My Husband” works because it’s about “…an Irishwoman’s innate embarrassment” (her own) as she navigates the single woman’s life in the United States. “Other People’s Children” is about the obligations of being an aunt and honoring the work of her many sisters. “Golden Record” goes from the small (an addiction to Instagram stories) to the large (how Voyager 1 and 2 left earth with Golden Records containing greetings from and testimony about human life for those who might find them) without missing a beat. “Stormy with the Calm Eyes” is a fun piece about the status symbol trend (amongst New Yorkers) of rescue dogs. She contrasts it with her cultural perspective:

“I come from a rural background where an animal is supposed to pull its weight.”

In contrast, she notes that for New Yorkers, “…if you’re a person or an animal hoping to stand out, I’d advise you to be extraordinarily beautiful.” This is a deeper essay masquerading as something light and frothy. Higgins builds on the idea of rescue dogs as status symbol and touches on an old Dustin Hoffman interview in which the actor was tearfully reflecting on the anonymity of women who appear plain:

“I should call it… misogyny… that mad rule stating all women are contemptible.”

“How Funny” and “Small Talk” deal with comedy and communication respectively, the ways both can be horribly misunderstood when translated from one culture to another. “In my family, being funny is prized,” she writes. “Comedy is our gift and our curse.” She writes about the ways she communicates via text with her many sisters, their snarkiness, their similarly jaded view on life, and it works. Even more interesting, though, is how she assesses the very act of practicing comedy:

“Being funny is a way of… skirting around the ugly feelings, not saying what you mean because what you mean is too… painful.”

“Small Talk” is another interesting essay in that it appears to be superficial (just about the title subject) but she makes it work by explaining how such a practice doesn’t exist in Ireland unless and until you become close acquaintances. “My first year here was a busy round of collecting and processing,” she writes. “…just try saying ‘How are you, though really?’ to an Irish person and I’m warning you, you will be decimated.'”

The two strongest selections here, “Pen as Gun” and “Aliens of Extraordinary Ability” are prime examples of how Higgins manages to transcend the usual glut of essayists du jour. Where the writers noted at the beginning of this review build primarily from the good will generated by their podcasts to produce equally strong literary efforts, Higgins seems to have higher aspirations. Take this passage from “Pen as Gun”, where she examines what happened when she was asked to lead a February 2016 comedy workshop in Iraq:

“It’s a difficult task, making words that are funny in one language match up to achieve the same end in another.”

Of course, that should be a given. Certainly it’s a futile task to define “funny”, but Higgins mines the scene for deeper truths. She reminds us that art is not exclusively made by and for the privileged. “Each life is a deep mine of events and emotions.” We take what we can from each not to exploit so much as unite. This is a rich essay that explores much deeper the simple truths Higgins notes near the end:

“I know now that there are old hearts in Bagdad that beat with the certainty of change, and young minds… that whir with silly jokes and smart ideas.”

Higgins manages more poetry and truth in these 19 pages about finding comedy in a war torn countrythan Albert Brooks’s woefully misguided 98-minute 2005 comedy, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.

Identity politics, gender perspectives, and basic, clumsy, fish out of water confusion is liberally sprinkled through all the essays in Maeve In America, the strong and minor efforts both, but it’s really within “Aliens of Extraordinary Ability” that Higgins finds her strongest platform. She matches her story of leaving Cobh, Ireland in January 2014 for America with fellow Irish citizen Annie Moore’s arrival at Ellis Island in January 1892. Moore was the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island, and Higgins details how the identity of the real Annie Moore was not who she we was led to believe. It’s a story about arriving in Ellis Island. Did we stay? Did we go west? This essay also touches on the legendary American abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his time in Ireland in 1845:

“[That was] the year the country began its terrible spiral into a famine that ultimately killed a million people.”

Maeve in America is a sweetly rendered collection of essays with hard edges of reality that seem to come from a distinctly Irish literary sensibility. It’s about rebellion, humor, adaptation, hunger for food and a place in the world, and the offerings of humanity that all immigrants bring to the land when they come for a place at the American table.

RATING 8 / 10