Interview with Nina McConigley
1. We would love to talk a little bit about the structure of the book Cowboys and East Indians . You begin with a flash fiction piece-- “Melting”-- and then go on to longer ones. Incidentally, this story also happens to be the one which deals most directly with racism. So, we are curious, what exactly were you thinking about when you were structuring your manuscript? Did you have explicit thematic and political concerns?
For me, I wanted to start with the flash fiction piece – as it sets the tone for the whole book. The first line, “We were the wrong kind of Indians living in Wyoming” to me sums up the whole book. And I knew I wanted to end the book with Curating Your Life, as the story was set in India, and was my talking back to the book Passage to India, which is my favorite novel of all time. There are many things in that story directly speaking to that book – the cave, the echo, the idea of seeing the real India. In Forster’s novel, the book ends with the idea that East and West have not yet come together. And I suppose I was thinking about that for me as well. I don’t think I’ve yet figured out my two worlds, my two halves. And that’s the note I wanted the book to end on.
I don’t think I had explicit thematic or political concerns. It was only when the first draft of the book was done and I was really looking at how the stories made a book that I realized that there of course were themes that come up relentlessly in the book. But while I was writing, I wasn’t thinking about that.
2. For you, as a writer, Wyoming seems to be a place that is associated with a kind of overwhelming whiteness. And, then, within that, you deal with this idea of being “brown”, “foreign”, “Indian.” And, of course, your stories also make references to the two kinds of Indians-- the “dot Indians” and the “feather Indians.” In other words, it seems like you have given a lot of thought to developing Wyoming as a specific place in your stories. How did you land upon that? Did you begin to write thinking about Wyoming as the default setting for all of your stories? Or, did the relationship between this specific place and your stories develop over time, as you kept working on the collection?
I suppose the answer to that is I followed the old adage of writing what you know. I know Wyoming. I know it well. I’ve lived here my whole life. To me, Wyoming is a character in the book – in every story. Over the years that I was writing the book, most of all of the stories were set in Wyoming without me thinking about it. Again, as it’s what I know. I felt too untested as a writer to write about a city or place I didn’t know. I also wrote the bulk of the book when I was living in Houston while getting my MFA. I was so homesick. The traffic and largeness of Houston weighed on me, and I think I started this book as a kind of love letter home. I’d drive on the freeway and pretend I was driving down the highway in Wyoming, with nothing but open and horizon before me.
Later, after finishing my MFA, I lived in India, so felt fine writing stories set there, but even in those two stories, the main characters are outsiders. But Wyoming is always my default setting. I think the land and the geography of this place exerts a kind of pressure on my characters. And I like that. I am working on a novel, and it is set in Wyoming as well. But I have started notes on a new project, and it’s not set in Wyoming.
3. We want to talk a little bit about the story “ Dot or Feather.” But, we would like to talk about it in conjunction with three other stories – “Curating Your Life, ” 'The White Wedding” and “Cowboys and East Indians.” All three of them are, in some ways, about the perceived and fetishized notions of Indianness. But, at the same time, they are also about the fetishized notions of Americanness. And, of course, place plays very important roles in all of these stories. Or, at least that's how we read them. What exactly were your thoughts when you were working on these stories?
I had such different thoughts about each of these stories. Dot or Feather is one of the oldest stories in the book. I wrote a draft of it before my MFA program. Growing up, I was always really intrigued by exchange students who came to Wyoming. I wondered if they were disappointed when they got to Wyoming. Was that the America they were expecting? To me, it’s interesting when race or a culture is fetishized. I always think it’s interesting what people deem as exotic. But over the years, I have found that Wyoming is more exotic to a lot of people than India. And in all of those stories, there is a concern with that.
I think I am obsessed with notions of what makes something authentic, and how do we know the “realness” of a place. Vikram Chandra has this amazing essay called “The Cult of Authenticity” about this. And I think about this as a writer all the time. The Wyoming I represent is just my view of the place, and what I know. The Wyoming that is represented in say Annie Proulx’s fiction is not a Wyoming I know that well. I grew up in a “city” by Wyoming standards, and don’t really know the ranch life. Each one of those stories to me is another angle to see the state, to see this place that means so much to me.
4. How would you distinguish your work within the ever-burgeoning field of Indian/South Asian diasporic and immigrant writing?
I think the main way is that I am writing about the more rural immigrant experience. There are so many Indian writers I love. But most of their fiction takes place in places that have a more urban setting – in Boston or Houston or the Bay Area for example. To be an immigrant in a place like Wyoming is just such a different life. And I am interested in talking about that difference. How being different in a place where you never see a reflection of yourself changes how you interact with the world.
5. Humor seems to be a defining feature of these stories, whereas a lot of fiction about immigrants has the reputation of being serious or humorless. Is humor something you think about consciously as you write? Do you think of humor as a way to subvert familiar tropes at the same time as it illuminates the peculiarity of your particular perspective?
Well, the short answer to this is that I like to think I am funny. I actually was surprised when a few people I trust as readers told me that they found the book really sad and dark. As I think there is a lot of humor in the book. Many of the situations, while being serious, are funny. The first story for example, Melting – to me, it’s funny that one of the characters thinks they were called after a chocolate bar. I wanted to take something dark, like being called a racial slur, and turn it on its head. And so yes, I think I do want to subvert expectations and show the absurdness of things. I also supposed humor is a kind of coping mechanism. We make jokes when we are nervous. And I think identity and race is something we don’t want to necessarily talk about. If humor is a way in, then I want to go there.
6. A lot of your stories feature main characters who are outcasts and outsiders in one way or another, and yet we never get the sense that these characters are passive victims of circumstance. How do you go about creating compassion for marginalized characters without stripping them of agency?
I suppose I tried to make them all a bit weird. Cindy, the babysitter in Dot or Feather is a kleptomaniac, and stealing gives her an odd sense of power. Faith, in Cowboys and East Indians likens herself to a llama, guarding and protecting, but not being part of the main group. But I think to answer your question more directly – I have huge amounts of compassion for my characters. I love them. Even though they are flawed and unlikable at times. Delia in Reserve Champion to me is the perfect example of this. She so wants praise and validation. And I know what that is like. Perhaps I am a bit of every one of my main characters. I know what they have gone through. And they all do actions or things that they think are going to bring them power. It’s doesn’t always work. Stealing a doll or killing a prairie dog isn’t perhaps going to fix your life, but it’s taking some sort of control. But I hope a reader will see why they might do a stupid thing or act a certain way. Every character in the book wants something. They may try to get it in a clumsy fashion, but they want something. And I hope their humanness and flaws in their attempts creates compassion. That is what we are all doing in life – bumbling along, hoping for connection, hoping for a place in the world.