In conversation with Isabella McDonnell, the host and founder of the illuminating podcast that celebrates multi-cultural identity and our search for belonging

Photography Marley Hutchinson 

What does home feel like? When you turn it over and let it sift through your hands, what does it look, sound or taste like? How does one build a community, create a sense of belonging in a world in which difference is something to be feared? What does it mean to be culturally complex? These are some of the urgent questions Isabella McDonnell contends with every month through her remarkable podcast series Xeno, a nod to the Greek root word xénos, which means stranger, foreigner or guest. Joined by a litany of the latter – ranging from poets to psychologists, learning facilitators to wildlife conservationists – the generous, vulnerable, and ultimately hopeful conversations that unfold are welcome reminders of our shared humanity. Given the divisive and turbulent seas we’re tossed in daily, they are vital ports in the storm.

To celebrate episode seven being published today, I caught up with McDonnell. Below, she reflects on why she created the series, relational intelligence, and the much needed art of deep listening.

Isabella McDonnell, photography Charli Doherty

I’m going to start by asking something you normally begin your podcast interviews with: how do you answer the question where are you from and what truths are missing from that statement?

Many people will say that the answer they give changes depending on who’s asking the question. That’s been a recurrent theme on the podcast and completely resonates with my own experience. It’s changed over time as well, because growing up – having been born and raised in London – I used to say that I’m English. I was very adamant about that but because I had an American accent I got bullied for it when I was in primary school. People made fun of me and said it was fake. When I went to a Christian boarding secondary school – all girls, most being upper class British – I had to assimilate. I completely changed my accent, relearnt how to pronounce things. At the time I was very strongly saying, I’m English, and just leaving it at that. People’s response would always be confusion. They’re looking at you thinking you don’t really look English and then this whole can of worms opens up.

Growing up, I realised this is not an accurate picture of who I am, because I feel at home in many places, in many languages, and it doesn’t feel right to say English anymore – particularly as this country has not been very hospitable towards me. Now I tend to say – if I’m not in the mood to talk explain my whole life history – I’m from all over the world. But if I want be more accurate I’ll say my dad’s from New Zealand, my mom’s from the Philippines. She grew up in New York and I live in Italy and the Philippines and England, but have also lived in the States. It’s important to me that I’m accurate because it’s never one place, one physical location, which is what people want to hear from you. Or, they want know your ethnicity so they can place you into their own concept of hierarchy. There’s a difference between curiosity and simply wanting to categorise and you can get a strong sense of that difference. You trust yourself in that reading of someone’s intention.

Why did you decide to create Xeno?

I was part of a special charity group called Huddlecraft that facilitates lifelong learning through peer-to-peer groups. It’s guided by a personal question that you’re carrying with you that you want to facilitate with other people and answer. I joined one at the beginning of the pandemic on home and belonging. I knew I wanted to create a podcast at the end of it, as it was the best format for exploring those questions. I’ve also been volunteering at a suicide prevention charity for three years now and I was witnessing such a wide cross section of society – everybody, no matter where you’re from – dealing with these same issues. We all search for meaning, we all search for belonging. These are existential issues and it’s no longer just limited to people like me. I mean, we experience it in a more acute way because of the unique nature of our identity, but everyone’s struggling with this now, even more so through Covid. I think that it’s important for me, from what I now know about my sense of belonging and identity, to give that to the next generation, because I never had that. My mom experienced a lot of racism and my dad’s experienced a lot of difficulty too, but they couldn’t have ever anticipated what I went through at school because they didn’t have as nuanced an understanding of British society and the class system as someone who’s been raised in that environment. I would’ve benefited from guidance at that age and I’m hoping to give that back to younger people as they navigate this space where unfortunately we’re dealing with a more politically tumultuous time. We’re returning to a time where foreigners are scapegoated for everything. I think it’s getting to a point where it’s absolutely existential for us and we need to be able to understand each other better. We need to learn to listen to each other in a meaningful way and get away from this us and them binary concept. The podcast format was a way of showing what people are going through and that ultimately, you’re not alone.

When I interviewed the writer Sean Hewitt recently about his memoir, many sections of which deal with growing up gay and hiding that part of himself, he said he wrote the book he wished he had growing up… The subjects explored in Xeno – ultimately celebrating being culturally complex – in my mind have never been more important to highlight. In this country we’ve had decades of political and social divide and rule – something you just alluded to – in which difference is something to be feared, not embraced. How does this atmosphere make you feel, and what charge does it give to a project like this?

We live in a political and social climate in which difference is othered, or seen as something to be punished. People who feel empowered or confident in themselves because they are different is a political act. I’m inspired by the work of author Édouard Louis and the way he speaks about how the ruling class are protected from politics. Whereas for everyone else, especially the working classes, it’s a matter of life and death. The effects of globalisation, social media, and what Byung-Chul Han calls ‘neoliberal psychopolitics’ are exacerbating our disconnection and destabilising our ability to feel empathy for each other. These forces do not want you to thrive as you are authentically. They want you to feel violent and divided.

Alienated, isolated.

We could go on about how that ties into capitalism and this idea that it’s all about image rather than depth and connection. I think Sam Harris – the neuroscientist and philosopher – talks about this so beautifully. He says that human beings are always either moving between violence or conversation, and discusses how we need to keep making sense to each other, because if we don’t, we lose connection to each other and the world. I think we’ve lost the art of connection. We’ve lost the art of deep conversation, of deep listening. If we were to facilitate that more, we’d be in a much better place.

Photography Marley Hutchinson

I was pleasantly surprised – and I really shouldn’t have been knowing you – by how good an interviewer you are. What do you think makes for a good conversation, and have you found it to be an enriching and rewarding experience to play the role of interviewer?

I absolutely love it. I think the best training for this has been mental health support training. The work we do around suicide prevention, it’s 100% the best way to find what lies beneath. It’s always thinking about the underlying motivation or narrative and what I like about the podcast interviewing process is that I get to bring some of myself into the conversation, because with mental health support, it’s all about the other person’s story and what they’re going through, which is so important. We all need that non-judgmental space where we can just let everything out and not feel like the other person’s just waiting to jump in. Podcast interviewing is a beautiful process because with active listening you are able to pull out something that’s changed someone in some way, but also bring to the table your own personal experiences, knowing what it’s like to feel rejected, what it’s like to be told you are too white or you are too this and not enough of that. Being able to empathise allows you to help that story unfold. But ultimately it’s about their story, how they find meaning and belonging in this world. Often it’s to do with power – political, legal, financial – and how that impacts their life. I love unraveling that whole person’s experience.

You’ve recently moved out of the city. What does your new home mean to you? Physically, mentally, spiritually?

I’m in the countryside and only owls wake me up these days. It’s funny, I grew up around here and I don’t remember paying attention to nature. It’s only now that I really appreciate it, and coming back away from all the chaos of what’s going on, like cost of living crisis, city living, it was important to be closer to what was meaningful to me and more aligned with my values and goals. Nature is a massive point of inspiration for me now in terms of my sense of belonging because, speaking very personally, nature accepts you. It doesn’t have any expectations of you; you belong to nature and you can simply feel at one, calm. Whereas, if you’re in a social group you’re having to navigate these social conditions, worry about how people are perceiving you. Being able to step back from that and recover is so important because – and Jahnvi Singh, my first ever guest, says this perfectly – belonging and finding home is about coming alive and coming to rest together. Being in the city is great for socialising and creating communities, but you also need solitude. You also need rest to come back to yourself and then to show the best of who you are rather than it coming from an insecure place. Being surrounded by nature gives me that sense of grounding, security and confidence. I just did my mountain leader training in Wales in the Brecon Beacons and I’m so excited to go on that journey because that’s an important one for me, to qualify eventually as a leader.

Isabella McDonnell, photography Charli Doherty

What do your other homes sound, smell and taste like?

It tastes like sweet, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, and spaghetti bolognaise. It smells like rosemary and lavender and sage. It sounds like the ocean, pigeons and robins.

I loved Yas Necati’s episode and their poetry reading. For future episodes, are you going to have more subjects read pieces or share something to respond to?

Absolutely, that’s the goal. Their poetry is so meaningful to me and I’m very excited for season two because I’ve got a lot of authors lined up. This enables multi-textural storytelling and the work you can communicate through poetry is immense. The amount of connection that I feel to Yas’ poems when they read them is unbelievable. For that episode, listeners may not know what it is to grow up in a place of conflict, but they would be able to connect to finding a coin in a sponge cake made by your grandmother, that feeling of love and care. That’s belonging, that’s home, and ideally you want society to treat you the same way.

What have been some of your favourite moments or surprise learnings on the show?

One thing that surprised me, which was a great learning, happened during my conversation with Reuben Christian. He challenged the idea of my identity and personality by asking ‘so, are you naturally a go-getter and work-hard-all-the-time person?’ Without even thinking I said yes that’s my natural personality, and he responded by saying, ‘is it natural, or is it inherited from our capitalist system?’ And yes, he’s right. We’ve all inherited a very strong culture in which we’re expected to work, constantly. I loved that. He challenged me and brought his own personal learnings from his therapy sessions. What amazing vulnerability. I’ve learned something from everyone and I feel so safe with the people that I speak with, because there’s this innate sense of trust.

The podcast made me reflect on my own heritage, as I am half Irish. I know most English people have some form of Celtic ancestry so I’m not particularly special… But, I spent many summers visiting my dad there and recently went back to Dublin to see my family. Although in recent years I’ve been estranged from it, it made me re-examine my heritage and roots, my cultural ties. It made me feel more complicated, which was a nice feeling. What strength and understanding does your culturally complex identity give you?

I believe you can be a bridge for people. It’s funny how I’ve ended up going into a space professionally where you’re helping people resolve their disputes, mediating differences. That’s probably my biggest strength in any kind of situation, social or professional or through mental health support. I’m able to bridge that gap for someone and help facilitate that connection and move past perceived differences. Often people with these kinds of culturally rich backgrounds are emotionally sensitive, something Esther Perel calls relational intelligence – being able to understand the different social undercurrents that are going on in groups and seeing who’s feeling left out, seeing how can we help bring that person in? So you get a strong sense of empathy for people who have been at the sidelines, marginalised or rejected in any way. It’s being able to demonstrate and help show people their humanity, helping them to recognise that we are all the same, we all feel the same struggles in terms of loneliness, depression and anxiety.

Who would be your dream guest on the podcast and why?

There’s so many!

You can have three.

Gabor Maté. He’s changing the world and has a phenomenal story – being isolated from his mom as a baby in Hungary during Nazi occupation. It doesn’t get more stark than that in terms of life experience, and what’s phenomenal is how he now deals with it and helps people with addiction or people near the end of their life. Esther Perel would be another dream, and has a similar background in that her parents were the only ones in her family who survived the concentration camps. She’s spoken about how people were able to stay alive and keep living through erotic intelligence and being in relationships. She speaks seven languages because she grew up in a part of Belgium where there were all these different migrant communities, and she uses that in her therapy work. And maybe David Lammy because I’m reading his book Tribes at the moment. What he says about his experience growing up in a grammar school definitely connects with my own experience.

In that vein, Akala’s book Natives is fantastic. Finally, is there anything I may have missed you’d like to discuss or celebrate?

I’d like to highlight how much of our own stories of belonging come from our families and what we’ve learned from our caregivers, those who’ve had responsibility for raising us. I’d like people to be unafraid to challenge that narrative, to reckon with the frameworks in which they were raised. As the political writer Sophie Lewis argues, our sense of belonging in society is currently predicated and dependent on our connection to the nuclear family — and that we should instead be developing a sense of kinship at a societal level. I am exploring that now myself, and am currently finding belonging through nature, because when you’re intimately connected to it, you are, as Erich Fromm states, able to exist “without a father and a mother”, as you authentically are. I would encourage people to explore that more.

Xeno publishes monthly and can be listened to here