Resurrecting the Short Story: Thoughts on Race, Identity and Exoticism
The flight from Albuquerque to almost anywhere else is not direct. On my way to the Texas Book Festival in Austin I stopped over in Denver for two hours, thus devoting almost an entire day to travel and, happily enough, to reading a book that had appeared on my doorstep that very morning. I had ordered Cowboys and East Indians from the little-known independent press Five Chapters after hearing about it on Twitter from several trusted sources. And so, while reading the thin book of stories by Nina McConigley, I sat where many of the characters from those very stories had sat: in the Denver airport, the transitional space between Wyoming and everywhere else. By the time I arrived in Austin, I had finished the book: ten beautifully written stories about Wyoming, the West, and seemingly fruitless searches for identity.
I met Nina in the State Capitol building in Austin, where many of the Texas Book Festival events were being held. She was taking a photo for a local Austin reporter, her gorgeous pink sari hiked up just enough to see the brown leather cowboy boots underneath. East meets West. The Texas Book Festival is a place where authors of great renown inhabit the same hallways, bars, and podiums as debut authors, small-journal editors, and general book lovers. It is a place where during conversations people tend to stare past you to see who else they could be talking to, where the first question after you introduce yourself is: “And who are you?” Meeting Nina was refreshing and a bit of a relief. Instantly, I felt at ease. She was welcoming and generous and seemed truly grateful that I had not only bought her book, but also read it. In short, she was everything you hope someone you admire will be: a normal human being.
Nina McConigley was born in Singapore and moved to Wyoming when she was ten months old. Her father, an Irishman, was a gas geologist and went to work for an oil company there. Her mother had grown up in Chennai (formerly Madras) in southern India. Nina lived basically her entire life in Wyoming until she went to St. Olaf College as an undergraduate and studied English literature. There, she connected with her Irish roots and wrote her honors thesis on Yeats. She spent the years after college doing a spectrum of different jobs, from working in insurance to going door to door for the Census Bureau. She had always had an interest in writing but kept it mostly to herself. Eventually, while living in Minneapolis, Nina took a creative writing class at The Loft Literary Center and she began writing stories in earnest.
She applied to MFA programs soon after and got in at Emerson College. Five days before classes were supposed to begin, Nina’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and so much like Lucky in her story “White Wedding,” she decided to go back to Wyoming and stay with her mom. She then decided to go to the University of Wyoming for her MA (at the time, Wyoming didn’t have an MFA program). The writer John D’Agata was there as a visiting professor, and Nina took a nonfiction workshop with him. D’Agata encouraged her to apply to MFA programs, which she did. She applied to, among other places, the University of Houston because she wanted to work with Chitra Divakaruni. But once there, the person with whom she connected most was Antonya Nelson. Nina now holds an MA in English from Wyoming and an MFA in Creative Writing from Houston.
Nina lives in Laramie now, where she teaches as a lecturer at the University of Wyoming. She is mysteriously drawn to Wyoming, to this place where she grew up. As she said, “I’m happy here. I’ve lived all over and I’ve tried to stay away, but I always come back.” We spoke on the phone several days after the Texas Book Festival had ended. When I first called her, she didn’t pick up and so I left her a message. She called back almost immediately, seemingly mortified to have screened my call. A man who had helped her move, she told me, had been sending her a lot of text messages lately and so she was wary of unknown numbers. Our interview began in laughter, and we soon fell into the regular rhythm of conversation as though we were old friends. That is how Nina is: easy, familiar, quick to laugh.
Blue Mesa Review: Can you tell me a little bit about the book and how it came to be?
Nina McConigley: Two of the stories had been in my MA thesis, and by the time I graduated with my MFA I think there were about eight stories and you know how MFA dissertations go. Some of the stories just felt like they were there to fill space because they were not polished or even fully formed yet. By the end of the program the whole collection definitely needed work. Which I think is always interesting, you know: you work on all of these stories for workshop and then you put them together into a manuscript and you realize that they don’t quite fit thematically. So when I graduated I dropped half the stories because I didn’t think that they were very good. I moved back home and worked a series of odd jobs. Then I went to India. I worked at a publishing house in India and it was during that time that I worked on some new stories. Weirdly, I had never sent a story out for publication until I lived in India. But I started sending out stories for the first time and I got a story accepted and that was my first publication. From that I got a little more confident and I started thinking more about the book and getting an agent. I met my agent to be at Breadloaf and she read some of my work and encouraged me with the collection because she was excited about stories, which never happens in publishing—I mean, almost never is an agent or editor excited about stories—so I worked on it and eventually sent it to her.
BMR: Short stories do seem to be the black sheep of the publishing world. Why do you write short stories?
NM: I like stories. I like to read them and I like to buy them, which I know is probably not normal. But I really like stories. I think that at the time I needed to try out a lot of different points of view and character and settings and the form worked for me. And also, I wanted to write a book about Wyoming, and I have ten different stories in my book and that allowed me to show different perspectives about Wyoming in a way that a novel couldn’t.
BMR: Who are some of your favorite short story writers?
NM: I love Eudora Welty. I love Antonya Nelson, even though that is kind of a cliché to say, but I do. I love her work. I love Joy Williams, who teaches at Wyoming and I’m too nervous to talk to. I love Claire Vaye Watkins because I love the way she writes about the West. I love Laura van den Berg. Rajesh Parameswaran, who wrote I Am an Executioner. I’m teaching that book this spring and I think that he is an Indian-American writer who is really exciting.
BMR: How do you start a story? Do you start from an idea or do you start with a character?
NM: I think that I’ve always been so aware of race because of growing up where I grew up, and I’ve always been the only brown person in the room for the most part. What I mean is, it isn’t as though I walk around and say that I have a chip on my shoulder or that I was unhappy, because I wasn’t unhappy. I had a really happy childhood in Wyoming. But I was always aware of being the outsider, and I think that the only way I knew how to cope with that was through writing. And for me there is no real way to separate out my writing from how I think about identity. I’m really interested in how people fit in and what forms you. Is it your geography or ethnicity? It’s complicated because I feel like a Wyoming girl but also definitely Indian, so all my writing seems to surround that dichotomy in some way. And even the stories that I write that don’t have an Indian as the main character, I still think that those characters are sort of outsiders and are still grappling with where they fit in. Each story is rooted in a tiny bit of autobiography, something that had happened or something I had stored away from when I was a kid.
BMR: I think that humor, especially in your book, is really powerful. How do you think humor works in your stories?
NM: I am trying to show the absurdity of that kind of hatred. It’s funny because when I do readings, and I haven’t done very many, but when I do I like to start with “Melting” because it is so short and when I look at people’s faces they are so uncomfortable at the beginning when I’m reading it. It is palpable how uncomfortable the audience is because people don’t like to hear that word—which I understand, the n-word is rough. But then the relief that comes when I get to the funny part is really evident, and I think that I want to open that conversation, and I think that people are more willing to participate if they aren’t so uncomfortable.
BMR: I want to talk a little bit about the title story, “Cowboys and East Indians,” but I want to talk about it along with “White Wedding” and “Curating Your Life” because they are the three first-person stories in the book and they all contain similar themes. I thought that it was interesting to structure the book in such a way that we read “Cowboys and East Indians” at the beginning and then end with “Curating Your Life” because those two especially seem to deal with the same theme of identity. Maybe this notion of a slippery identity: characters who feel not quite at home in the West and also not quite at home in the East either?
NM: All three of those stories are very autobiographical in a lot of ways. You know, Faith from “Cowboys and East Indians” looks Indian, but she isn’t. I think that I really wanted to talk about the fact that sometimes just being brown and being around other people who look like you isn’t enough. And I think that’s the same thing for Rae from “Curating Your Life.” She is brown and she is living in India and she’s like: oh, it’s going to be great, I’m going to experience this culture that I come from. But then she realizes that she is actually very American. And with Lucky in “White Wedding,” she is realizing that she is very American and she belongs in Wyoming. I think on some level all three of these characters realize their Wyoming-ness. Not necessarily their Indian-ness, yet they look Indian. I spent a lot of time myself, which is probably a futile thing, trying to figure out how I fit in. I wanted those characters to explore that as well, and I don’t think that any of them really comes to any conclusions.
BMR: What do you make of that? Is there an answer to identity? Does there need to be?
NM: (Laughs) I don’t know. I certainly don’t feel the extreme of isolation that Faith and Rae feel. I don’t even know why we as humans want to determine our identities so deeply. I mean, that is probably a futile task. But I also feel that being in Wyoming really feeds my soul. I love living here. But there are also days when I just really want to see another brown person. So I don’t know. I don’t think that there is an answer, and if there is, I haven’t found it yet. So maybe I’ll keep writing about it. In “Curating Your Life” there are lines that are almost directly the same as lines from A Passage to India, lines that are basically saying that the East and the West are never going to come together, and in that Forster book people are always walking around saying, “I want to see the real India, I want to see the real India,” and when I read that book for a postcolonial lit class, that really stayed with me because I was always wondering: what does that mean, the real India? I think that is something that comes through in my writing. I don’t know what the authentic Indian experience is, but I also don’t know what the authentic Western experience is. I don’t know, in this day and age, if there is an authentic experience. Or maybe this idea of slippery identity is the authentic experience. It certainly is my experience.
BMR: When you lived in India, did you go there with the same kind of motivations that Rae has in “Curating Your Life”? She says something about going to India to “find her roots”?
NM: Yeah, one hundred percent. I hadn’t really grown up going to India. My first trip there was when I was 23. My family was incredibly protective of me. They wouldn’t let me walk down to the corner store to get a Coke. They told me I was too American. I don’t know what they thought was going to happen. So later I wanted to go and have my own experience. I thought, okay, I’m going to do this and it is going to be amazing. And it was. I worked at an Indian publishing house and they made beautiful books. So there were parts of it that were really good. But there were also parts that weren’t. For example, I hated how hard I found India to be the first couple months I was there. I mean, it got a lot easier, but at first it was really hard. I was appalled by my own small town-ness. I felt like such a country bumpkin. It was very eye-opening for me. It’s funny because I actually hold an Irish passport and am an Irish citizen because of my father, and I know that in terms of postcolonialism, Ireland actually is a British colony, but because I don’t look like any of my family there my connection to Ireland hasn’t been that strong. And I don’t know if that is just because growing up we went to Ireland a lot and didn’t go to India, so maybe the veil of mystery had been lifted where it hadn’t been with India. I mean, I like being Irish, but I just haven’t grappled with it in the same way.
BMR: Another major theme in this book is that your characters are often viewed as exotic. How do you feel about that, and also in light of that, how do you feel that people should approach your book?
NM: I laugh because I think that in some ways, people from outside of Wyoming would view it as even more exotic than Indian-ness. Wyoming is the least populated state, and I think that is very curious to a lot of people. I find the word “exotic” problematic in a lot of ways because it just means that you are sort of strange or unusual or not native to a place, and I think it has been really interesting to see how the Western part or the rural part is almost more exotic for people from big cities. If you are from New York or Houston or L.A., you have a frame of reference for Indian-ness. But the frame of reference for a small town in Wyoming isn’t there. When I tell people that I’m from Wyoming they always say something like: oh, but you’re not from Wyoming. I mean, where are you really from? They don’t expect me. They always say: you can’t be from Wyoming. And I’m like: well, yes, I am. But people generally think of cowboys when they think of Wyoming. So I think that that notion of “exotic” is really interesting to me. In the story “Cowboys and East Indians,” Faith is really annoyed when her boyfriend says that she is exotic. And there are references to people as exotic throughout the whole collection, and I think I was just interested in exploring what that means. What is “exotic”?
BMR: Did you come to any conclusions?
NM: (Laughs) No. I wrote that story, “Cowboys and East Indians,” really early. And “White Wedding” was the very last story I wrote in the collection. When I wrote it I was thinking a lot about how people love to romanticize the West. I mean, you go up to Jackson Hole or Yellowstone and it really is about taking your old-time photo and wearing a cowboy hat and all that cheesy Western stuff. I don’t know, it is all a bit silly to me, because so much of the rest of the state is not like that.
BMR: I’m interested in the notion of appropriation and what you are allowed to write about. I’m curious if you think about that at all when you’re writing?
NM: Yes, I’m super uncomfortable writing characters who are born and raised in India. I think in the collection only three of the main characters are born and raised in India. So, clearly in terms of point of view, I’m nervous. I’m much more comfortable writing biracial characters, obviously. Which, as a fiction writer, I don’t think that is necessarily right. I think that you should be able to write whomever you want. I mean, I have written a white middle-aged geologist and I felt really comfortable doing that. I think I’m just a little more wary, and I wish I wasn’t. Maybe if I were a braver writer I wouldn’t be so nervous. Maybe I would be able to jump right in.
BMR: It does seem that people are so worried. Too careful, in a way.
NM: I know that we want to err on the side of being politically correct. And, you know, would I bristle if a white guy in my workshop were writing an Indian woman character? Yeah, I probably would a little bit. I don’t know that that’s fair, but I probably would. But what I’ve told one of my friends was that I’m a lot more comfortable writing a white guy who’s working on a rig than I am writing a woman who’s grown up in Calcutta. Because that’s the world I know. My dad’s an oil fieldsman. That’s what I grew up around. So in some ways I’m much more comfortable talking about that. But it is interesting to have those conversations about how and what and who you can write. I guess so much depends on the execution.
BMR: What about the notion that the absence of race equals whiteness? How do you go about resolving that—or do you?
NM: That is an interesting question, and it is true, you know, our default mode when we’re reading is to read a character as white 100% of the time. So one interesting thing about my background is that my mom grew up Christian in Chennai and my grandfather was a Christian. Christianity has been in South India for a long time, which means that a lot of my family members have Christian names. If you go to the cemetery where my grandparents are buried, you’ll see all Anglicized names, yet they are all Indians. So I try and introduce the race of all my characters, because you can’t know from a name. But it is interesting that it is our natural interpretation of a character—that they’re white. And I’m sure there are some writers who don’t even think about that.
BMR: The story “Fenced Out,” which I thought was by far the most devastating story in the collection, seems to have some standard themes that you see again and again in postcolonial literature: violence against women, child sexual abuse, etc. Do those themes just come out or were you thinking about those issues when you were writing?
NM: The thing about “Fenced Out” is that it is the oldest story in the collection. So I think that it is not as polished as some of the other stories, yet it is a story that I feel really strongly about even though it is kind of imperfect in its form. I think it definitely reads a little older than the rest. But the themes in it are things that I think about all the time. It is interesting because my novel now sort of evolved from some version of that story, because I do think that there are certain things like sexual abuse that happen a lot in extended families and families where people have had arranged marriages and there has been a little bit of sexual repression. Other writers have certainly talked about that way better than I have, but I do feel like within the immigrant experience it is not just the outside that can be terrible, but these families can implode on themselves, so I think that is what I was interested in. You know, I think it is so easy to write a story where there is a brown family and people from the outside are being so mean to them. But I was interested in the ways that families hurt themselves. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of people who have had great arranged marriages. There are. I know that it works for some people. But I am critical of it. I can’t help it.
BMR: Do you ever fear being categorized in any way as an “Indian” writer or a “woman” writer?
NM: I don’t mind being considered an Indian writer. I am half-Indian and I look Indian and it does inform my writing. I know some people who have told me to not get stuck in any niche, but right now it is what I’m interested in writing about. That‘s the same with Wyoming. But I am okay with owning it. I’m happy to be a writer of color and to be categorized that way. Especially because I don’t think that people are talking about the more rural immigrant experience. I want to talk about it. I want to have a conversation about race and identity and even about categorizing. I think it is interesting and I hope that the conversation continues.
Nina McConigley is the author of the story collection Cowboys and East Indians. She was born in Singapore and grew up in Wyoming. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, where she was an Inprint Brown Foundation Fellow. She also holds an MA in English from the University of Wyoming and a BA in Literature from St. Olaf College. She is the winner of a Barthelme Memorial Fellowship in Nonfiction and served as the Nonfiction Editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.