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Nina McConigley: The Short Form Interview

Race and my work are always tied. Maybe if I lived in a city, I wouldn’t think about it as much.

Author of short story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

The Interview

Your title, Cowboys and East Indians, is a great fit for the duality that runs throughout the collection. How did you arrive at it?

In the 1990’s, my mother was in the Wyoming Legislature. This was before there were a lot of Indian politicians, and in fact, she was the first person born in India to ever serve in a State legislature. I was young when she served, but I remember there was a newspaper headline about her that said, “An Indian Among the Cowboys.” That always stayed with me, and since I am biracial, people who don’t know much about the Arapahoe or Shoshone tribes here in Wyoming have asked me what tribe I am. I was always saying, “No, I’m East Indian…or dot, not feather.” It sort of became my mantra. 

Where there any rejected titles?

When the collection was in MFA thesis form, the title was Fenced Out, as Wyoming is a fenced out state – a lot of land is open range, you fence to keep animals out, not yours in. I liked the idea of fencing out when it came to thinking about migration and immigration. But in the end, I think Cowboys and East Indians was a better fit.

Writers think about characters first, and not necessarily their ethnicity. Being of multicultural background, do you find that race is on your mind when you're writing?

Every story in the collection has a bit of autobiography in it. And usually, the stories that I am mulling over are stories that often have to do with race. The thing is, I have grown up always being in the minority. I love Wyoming so much, and I choose to live here now, because the land is something I can’t live without. But I'm aware every day that I rarely see a reflection of myself. So, beyond my writing, this is on my mind in my daily life.

And this comes out in my writing. I think about identity and how we connect as humans is something I explore in my writing all the time. Race and my work are always tied. Maybe if I lived in a city, I wouldn’t think about it as much.

There is some awareness about someone's work being too white, maybe more so in film and television. Do you think there's a sense of duty a writer has in exploring a world other than her own? You're able to write about Wyoming oil rig workers and Indian students with equal ease.

Well, I think the easy answer here is that I am half-Indian. I look fully Indian, but my father was raised in Ireland (though my two sides of the family are connected in terms of having some wrath at the British). I think sometimes being biracial can be a strange gift. There are ways in which you don’t belong to either side, and you in a weird in-between limbo. But for me, that means I can move between both sides in my writing. But really, for me, my book is writing what I know. Every story is a world I know.

My father is also a petroleum geologist, so I have grown up around rig workers – I am from an oil and gas town. I’ve been really interested following the articles about Bill Cheng’s book, Southern Cross the Dog, and how many were/are suspicious of a Chinese-American, Queens-raised author writing about Mississippi. I hope as a writer I can write about anything, but I do think for writers of color, there is a different expectation of what story you will tell.

Newly-arrived Indian students are generally expected to be in positions of vulnerability but the ones we meet in the title story and in “Dot or Feather” somehow end up having power over the Wyoming residents. Do you see it that way? Indian students have a reputation for being reliable and disciplined, so I'm also wondering if you felt the urge to rebel against that.

I have taught ESL at the University of Wyoming in the past, and had many friends who are international students there. Wyoming is a hard place to come when you are from Asia or India in particular – the weather alone is unforgiving. In my own experience, these students are not vulnerable, and if anything, they have a kind of energy and way of looking at the state that perhaps I’ve lost.

My sister is s musician, and I am a writer, and people who meet my mom often ask her if she’s sad one of us isn’t in a more stable job. It annoys me. I have a lot of Indian friends in the arts, and I suppose there is a part of me that wants to subvert the Indian student narrative. Over time, this is happening already, but I am happy to help…

You've already touched a little upon what is expected of writers of color. What has been your experience? Do people expect certain things from you?

I am not sure if people do. Right now, I expect a certain story for myself. And that is, I want to write about being of color in America, especially in a rural place. Especially when the immigrant experience here is so different – we have no Indian restaurants, we drive 280 miles to Denver for Indian groceries, and well, there just are almost no other Indians. When I lived in Houston for grad school I was fascinated that there was so much community for Indians – restaurants, sari shops, grocery stores, a temple. Moving across the world is hard enough, but in cities, there is just so much for opportunity to meet other Indians, to find the things you miss at home. When my mom goes to Denver, she is over the moon if she can get fresh curry leaves. So for me, writing about the rural immigrant experience is what I am interested in. That may change, but for now, I’ll keep pushing myself in that direction. There are still many conversations about race that need to be had in this country.

Tell us a little about the stories you've recommended for our readers.

“Mr. Morning” by Siri Hustvedt This was one of the first short stories that when I read it, I felt unsettled for days. The story uses the uncanny in one of the best ways I know.

“Acrobat” by Laura van den Berg The thing I love about this story is that it takes something commonplace – the breakdown of a marriage and juxtaposes it with something very odd – the narrator instead of retreating to her hotel room in Paris takes up with a troupe of acrobats. Laura has a knack for taking the strange and making it seem like it’s the most normal route to take.

“The Infamous Bengal Ming“ by Rajesh Parameswaran It’s pretty hard not to be pulled right into a story in which the narrator is a tiger.

“How to Escape from a Leper Colony” by Tiphanie Yanique Her whole story collection is a wonder, but the title story set in 1939 on the island of Chacachacare, which was used as a leper colony, is astonishing. I love the language and dialogue so very much.

“Nemecia” by Kirstin Valdez Quade Family and family dynamics are always a little tricky, and this story has it in spades. This story covers a lot of years and business, and it is done in a way that keeps you reading, keeps you trying to solve the mystery of who Nemecia is.

I randomly happened upon a don't-and-do's advice for short stories where someone who was judging a contest said, “never write a story from the perspective of an animal” — how do you respond to those kinds of advice?

Don’t follow it. When I read Rajesh Parameswaran’s story collection last year, I felt like so many of the stories resist the rules when it came to what people expect from a short story. I teach an all Indian Short-Story class here at the University of Wyoming, and I am teaching his book in the Spring. I am interested to see how my students react to the book. I also teach a lot of stories in that class that have been translated from Tamil, Bengali, Kannada…and many of those stories don’t follow a traditional linear arc that Western readers might expect. I like to push those stories – stories that are perhaps weirder, that challenge notions of how one should write and how you should read.

I worked at a publishing house in Chennai, India – Tara Books. And working in the writing world in India made me really appreciate how stories are told in other traditions. I wish more readers read books in translation, and saw how particularly with many non-Western writers, the rules are being broken, and the result is amazing work.

 

Recommended by Nina McConigley

How to Escape from a Leper Colony
Excerpt

He was there on the beach when I came out of the water. Lazaro was not the name he was born with. He was given that name because he refused to die. He was sixteen when I met him that first day, older than me by two years but much smaller in size. I stood a head above him. I had some softness in places, chest and cheek, where he seemed hollow. He had been born in the colony and still showed no signs of leprosy and no signs of leaving. The world would not have him. Surely the leprosy would show soon. In truth, he had nowhere to go. His mother, a dougla, had passed on her mixed genes. One could not tell if Lazaro was African or Indian—there was talk that there was French in him, too. That his father was French. That his father was one of the French priests who came over once a week to celebrate the Mass. Who is to know? The dougla, the mixed race, might be a type of chameleon. They can claim any heritage they desire. They can claim all if they like. Though it is true that not all will claim them in return.

Full story at The Boston Review.

Nemecia
Excerpt

After her fourteenth birthday, Nemecia’s skin turned red and oily and swollen with pustules. It looked tender. She began to laugh at me for my thick eyebrows and crooked teeth, things I hadn’t noticed about myself until then.

One night she came into our bedroom and looked at herself in the mirror for a long time. When she moved away, she crossed to where I sat on the bed and dug her nail into my right cheek. I yelped, jerked my head. “Shh,” she said kindly. With one hand she smoothed my hair, and I felt myself soften under her hands as she worked her nail through my skin. It hurt only a little bit, and what did I, at seven years old, care about beauty? As I sat snug between Nemecia’s knees, my face in her hands, her attention swept over me the way I imagined a wave would, warm and slow and salty.

Night after night I sat between her knees while she opened and reopened the wound. One day she’d make a game of it, tell me that I looked like a pirate; another day she’d say it was her duty to mark me because I had sinned. Daily she and my mother worked against each other, my mother spreading salve on the scab each morning, Nemecia easing it open each night with her nails. “Why don’t you heal, hijita?” my mother wondered as she fed me cloves of raw garlic. Why didn’t I tell her? I don’t know exactly, but I suppose I needed to be drawn into Nemecia’s story.

Full story at Narrative Magazine

Mr. Morning
Excerpt

“Is there something you want to remember about this girl who died?” I asked.

“Why do you say that?” He jerked his head toward me.

“Because you obviously want something out of all this. You want these descriptions for a reason. When you mentioned those trunks, I thought you might want to trigger a memory.”

He looked away again. “A memory of a whole world,” he said.

“But I thought you hardly knew her, Mr. Morning.”

He picked up a pencil and began to doodle on a notebook page. “Did I tell you that?”

“Yes, you did.”

We read it in Best American Short Stories 1990.

Originally published in The Ontario Review 30.

The Infamous Bengal Ming
Excerpt

As soon as I got up and started to walk, I heard Maharaj break into a run, and in three quick bounds—boom, boom, boom—his heavy body was on top of mine and his claws were in my back and his teeth were sunk deep into my ass.

I screamed and writhed, but he kept me pinned down for thirty seconds or a minute, during which time I heard him fart, casual, loud and stinky, as if to demonstrate how relaxed he was, how little effort it took him to keep me locked down and in pain. Finally, he released me, as calmly as you please. He got up and started to walk away. (He didn't even look at me—just like Saskia.) He paused in front of the metal door in the fiberglass rock where I usually got my food. He crouched down and sent out a fat stream of piss. That smell would stick to that rock for days, and he knew it.

We read it in I Am an Executioner.

Originally published in Granta 117: Horror.

Acrobat
Excerpt

“When we were sitting on the bench this morning, you were saying something to me. Something important.”

“I could tell you weren't paying attention,” he said. “You kept looking over my shoulder.”

“That's true,” I said. “I was distracted. There were these acrobats.”

“And now you're wondering what I said?”

“I was hoping you'd repeat it for me.”

“We all have to live with our deficiencies.”

“That's what you said?”

“No. That's what I'm saying now.”

“What does that mean? That you're not repeating it for me?”

“There are consequences for the things we do. That's what I'm saying.”

“Consequences?”

“Consequences.”

“I don't believe in consequences. There's just what happens and what doesn't.”

“I'm glad to hear you still sound just like yourself.”

“Did you say that you loved me?”

“No.”

“That you never really loved me?”

“No.”

“That you'd met someone else?”

“Wrong again.”

“That you're planning to kill me and collect my life insurance payout?”

“It's crossed my mind,” he said. “But no.”

We read it in The Isle of Youth.

Originally published in Necessary Fiction.

full story available at Necessary Fiction