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'Tell Everyone on this Train I Love Them' is an outsider's view of an imperfect union

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Writer Maeve Higgins begins her new book with her two wishes about the pandemic - one, that it would end, and two, that it wouldn't impart any lessons. That dark humor sets the tone for her collection of essays called "Tell Everyone On This Train I Love Them."

MAEVE HIGGINS: So I think being serious is very necessary when we're alive in a moment like today, but I think being funny is just as necessary.

KEITH: In her book, Higgins, who is a comedian, writer and panelist on NPR's "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!," considers topics from accidentally getting very high on edibles to immigrants' plight at the U.S.-Mexico border. She's originally from Ireland, and when I talked to her earlier, I asked if that made it possible for her to see America in a way those who were born here can't.

HIGGINS: Well, I mean, isn't that so rude to, like, have a visitor in your house who's like, really? Those are the drapes you've chosen. OK.

KEITH: I question your choices.

HIGGINS: Totally. But the other part of that is I choose to live here. As you said, I'm Irish, in case my accent wasn't obvious enough. The thing is, I think because I love it, I want it to be the best it can be. And also, because I love it, I look at America very frankly.

KEITH: You describe new immigrants to America learning that the glimmering city of their dreams is filled with rats, fresh fruit isn't on the menu for the poor and that their American hero has crippling credit card debt and no health insurance. So what is it about America that you love?

HIGGINS: (Laughter) So the part that you read - that's from a piece I wrote about "90 Day Fiancé," which is a really great reality TV show where, you know, American citizens fall in love with somebody who's not American. And then that non-American moves to America and has three months to marry the American.

KEITH: And that is part of the K-1 visa process. There is this 90-day thing. But it also makes for kind of a perfect premise for a reality TV show.

HIGGINS: Yes, because the clock is built in. And then, you know, like any new relationship, there's all of these, like, difficulties.

KEITH: I actually think that it is one of the more revealing parts of your book even though it is about trash TV.

HIGGINS: I'm sorry, Tam. You say trash TV, but it's on TLC, which is The Learning Channel (laughter). So maybe me watching "90 Day Fiancé" is actually an intellectual exercise. That's what I tell myself as I sit there for hours.

KEITH: I might be telling myself that sometime soon as well. But I think that it did reveal something to you about the U.S., about your adopted country and about just the sheer force of American exceptionalism.

HIGGINS: Yeah, and how invisible that is to so many Americans, which is something that I learned when I first moved here almost 10 years ago - people saying, like, oh, it's great that you're here, you know? They didn't think that I might have needed a visa. They didn't fully understand what a fortress America is to most of the world. And, again, I came from a very privileged place - being European, being white. I'm on an artist visa. My visa is, you know, an alien of extraordinary ability - not to sound like I'm boasting.

KEITH: Not to brag.

HIGGINS: Yeah, yeah, yeah (laughter), my ability being the ability to sit very still and watch "90 Day Fiancé" for hours. But, yeah, I think that show - it opened my eyes to - OK, a lot of the American people on the show - they have really difficult lives, crippling debt, like, economic insecurity, all of these different inequalities that they're coping with. But still, if somebody wants into that life, then surely it means it can't be that bad. And they kind of cling to this idea that, you know, because they're Americans, they're exceptional. So it made me look a lot harder at that part of American life.

KEITH: After the George Floyd protests, you visited Richmond, Va., and the statues of Confederate generals and others, including Robert E. Lee. That statue is now gone. When you were there, it was covered in graffiti. But you draw a parallel to a statue in your native Ireland. Can you tell us about that?

HIGGINS: Absolutely. I looked at the Robert E. Lee statue, and I was, you know, bowled over by all of this graffiti and the kind of retaking of that public space. But there's another statue that's in conversation with the Robert E. Lee statue, and it's called "Rumors Of War." And it's this young, Black man, and he's in, like, Nike trainers, and he's got dreadlocks. And it's kind of an answer to all of these other Confederate monuments that dominated that city for so long.

But what it made me think of is another statue that's in Ireland, a statue called Misneach. And Misneach is a Gaelic word, and it means courage. Actually, it means a kind of a spirited courage. And that statute is a teenage girl on a horse outside a school in a very working-class area of Dublin. And then when I looked into where Misneach came from, the artist who made the statue of the girl in Dublin - he made the model out of the exploded pieces of an old statue that stood in Dublin for many years of a British field marshal. His name is Field Marshal Gough, and he was just, like, your classic awful colonist. Like, he went marauding around Ireland. And there was a statue to him, and the only reason there'd be a statue to him is to say, hey, everybody. Remember who's in charge here.

And it reminded me. When I was standing there, looking at the Robert E. Lee statue and looking at "Rumors Of War" in Richmond, I thought, wow. This country is so young. And, like, it's no wonder this struggle is so vivid now because it's growing. Like, this country is still so, so young.

KEITH: So I want to end with the title of this book. I initially thought this was, like, oh, she's just so excited after the pandemic. She's going to get on the subway and just want to tell everyone on the train that she loves them. But that's not it. Those are reportedly the last words of a young man killed defending two teenage girls, one of them in a hijab, from a man screaming racial epithets on a train in Portland. And you say that those extraordinary words have become your rule. What do you mean by that?

HIGGINS: Yeah. So "Tell Everyone On This Train I Love Them" - that is what a young man - he's 23 years old, Taliesin Namkai-Meche. First of all, I heard about what he did. Himself and two other men jumped in to save these two girls from a racist attack. And when I heard, first of all, what they did and, second of all, what he said - tell everyone on this train I love them - they stopped me in my tracks. And they actually instinctively felt exactly correct to me. Like, I was like, yes. You're so exactly right. But I was also baffled because I thought, like, how, in that moment of such violence - and he must have been afraid. And, like, how did he manage to feel that? And what exactly was he feeling? Was he feeling, you know, oh, he loved those young girls? Like, his attacker was still on the train. Did he mean everybody?

But what I took it to mean was a kind of a connection between us all and the importance of love as an action. I use it as a guide on my best days, I would say. It's aspirational as a guide to love everyone on this train. And this train is, you know, my life moving through America and all of us hopefully doing our best to remember that, too.

KEITH: Maeve Higgins is the author of "Tell Everyone On This Train I Love Them." Thank you so much for your time.

HIGGINS: Thank you. Thanks for talking.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIRD'S "KEEP YOU HIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.