Comedians Ayanna Dookie and Subhah Agarwal Put a Human Voice Behind the “I” Word

American Dream or Nightmare? How Immigration Became a Dirty Word and What Two New York Comics are Doing to Help

As a country, we’re talking far more about immigration than ever before. The catch? The conversations are held using coded language (VOICE coalitions and ICE raids) and sweeping generalizations (“they’re making us unsafe,” “they’re stealing American jobs”). But two first-generation New York comedians are seeking to change the conversation through funny human stories about the immigrant experience.

My American Nightmare is the joint brainchild of Ayanna Dookie and Subhah Agarwal, a pair of first-generation comics who were troubled by the lack of nuance in the recent discussions about border control, travel bans, and other tactics sparking undue fear in the people around them. “I think most people don’t realize they’re around immigrants as much as they are,” Ayanna shared during our conversation partway through the podcast’s first season. “My boss at my day job came to me with the whole ‘immigrants are taking our jobs’ and this that and the other, and I had to point out, ‘You do realize that I’m first generation American…’ And he was like, ‘I didn’t mean it like that…’” Her co-host echoed that sentiment, noting, “I feel like a lot of the people who have these opinions or feel this way- they’re not bad people, they just don’t have the experiences. So I think we really wanted to just put a human voice behind immigration.”

Throughout their first season, Subhah and Ayanna trade stories of internationally grounded misunderstandings, relationships with family members and friends, and how to find humor in these scenarios. The first few guests have been friends of theirs, and the rapport they’ve built as they poke fun and recount familiar stories makes it all the more refreshing to listen to.

As an example, their second episode with Canadian comic Alex Pavone manages to cover both the process of applying for a performer’s visa, and the weirdest job interview he went on while trying to stay in the city. Each type of story has value- the former illuminates the challenges folks go through to get to and stay in the country, while the latter relates a story that evokes laughter and familiarity. Says Ayanna, “getting to share stories like that, as silly as they are, can bring camaraderie.” While the guests are presently largely comedians, as they draw from their own social circles, they’re open to mining for these entertaining and ultimately humanizing stories from poets, lawyers, and anyone who can add layers to this complex issue.

As we learn about their guests, Subhah and Ayanna also delve into their own challenges as first-generation Americans, with a foot in each world and the constant struggle associated with this mentality. Even their current stead as comedians challenges them, as family members adjust to the idea that their American experience will look different than what was originally expected: “I think that’s a common thread among a lot of first-generation kids: our parents came here for the ‘better life,’ and what they equate to better life is not necessarily what we equate to better life,” in Ayanna’s words.

Subhah’s challenge in this arena even warranted some time away from her family, a distance she imposed when their opposition to her pursuit of comedy proved damaging. “After that happened, they kinda loosened up a little bit and they’ve come around. I don’t think it’s something they’ll ever fully understand. But they have become more supportive, or are trying to be.”

Learning more about Subhah and Ayanna as we talked, it made more and more sense why they took on this charge to educate and entertain around the topic of immigration. So much of the national dialogue on the topic lacks nuance, and the pair has realized that coupling time for stories with a general tone of acceptance and understanding over judgment and anger makes a difference in how they’re heard.

Ayanna admits, “If you’re an immigrant or first generation, it’s going to be a familiar story with a twist. I say that because I think a lot of immigrant and first generation kids have a lot in common.” She then goes on to illuminate the benefit of those challenged by the idea of immigration to give “My American Nightmare” a try: “I think it’d be an opportunity for them to hear a perspective and see – I don’t want to call it ‘the struggle,’ but…the struggle…it is to be able to be successful and fruitful in this country.”

Subhah agrees, observing, “It’s a lot of ignorance and hate. And it’s easy to hate something you don’t really know. That’s what we hope to do with a podcast, to help you say ‘Oh there’s a person behind that job-stealing immigrant [trope].’ Learning their story is super important.”

Listen to My American Nightmare on iTunes.

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Amma Marfo

Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.
Amma Marfo
Amma Marfo
Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.