Nina McConigley’s Wyoming is full of the typical things: “taupe” plains, cottonwood lined creeks, butchered deer.
Her characters are generally ordinary. They are first- and second-generation immigrants trying to make their way through life in a new home. There is Mrs. Gupta, the doctor’s wife with the refined British accent and philanthropic streak; and Rajah Sen, the engineer whose colleagues call him “Senator” because of his last name.
But what sets McConigley’s new collection of short stories apart is that she combines the two. She uproots the modern immigrant story from its traditional setting in the city and sets it down amid Wyoming's cowboys and its oilmen, its open prairie and its mountains.
Ultimately, “Cowboys and East Indians” is a series of fictional tales about what it is like to be Indian-American in Wyoming, one of the least racially diverse states in the nation.
“People don’t even think of Wyoming as a place where Asian Americans might live,” McConigley said. “I’m really interested in looking at that rural experience because it is so isolating to be in a place like Wyoming.”
It is a story McConigley is uniquely suited to tell. The daughter of an Irish oil and gas geologist and Indian journalist turned Wyoming legislator, McConigley, 37, grew up in Casper. She attended St. Anthony Tri-Parish Catholic School, Dean Morgan Middle School and Natrona County High School before leaving for St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where she earned her bachelor’s degree.
Her affection for Wyoming comes through in her writing and in conversation. “Cowboys and East Indians” is full of details only acquired by a longtime resident of the Cowboy State. In one story, families scour the Shirley Basin in the fall for petrified wood. In another, a character wonders if the neighbor’s deer tag came from the Absarokas or the Big Horns. They are small things, but telling nonetheless.
“Wyoming is a really great state in that people are generally interested in people from other cultures,” McConigley said. Later she commented that “the incidents of racism are pretty low.”
Still being a minority in a place that is overwhelming white is not without difficulty. Growing up in Casper, McConigley’s only non-white classmate was her cousin. Her graduating class at NCHS in 1993 numbered about 400 students. McConigley was one of maybe two or three students of color.
“Walking out on a daily basis and not seeing a reflection of yourself anywhere is hard,” she said. “You’re always the only minority in the room.”
That tension is reflected in her fiction. When Mrs. Gupta enters a sewing contest in the story “Reserve Champion,” the protagonist wonders if the elderly Indian lady even speaks English. Later the protagonist and a bank teller note that the doll Mrs. Gupta has entered in the contest is not wearing shoes. Indians are too poor for shoes, they conclude.
“Cowboys and East Indians” has yet to be formally released. It's official publication date is Tuesday. But it is already making waves. McConigley completed a whirlwind tour last week with readings in New York and Texas. At the Texas Bookfest in Austin, she was pitted in a "literary death match" against the fiction writer Jonathan Lethem, he of “Motherless Brooklyn” fame. They each read for judges, and Lethem won the contest.
Her highest praise yet came from the writer Chaitali Sen in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
“McConigley writes about Wyoming with the same mythic nostalgia that many Southern writers write about the South, or in the same way, aptly, that Wilder wrote about the prairie,” Sen wrote. “But she subverts the mythology of Wyoming with these stories of the wrong kind of Indians and their unsettling encounters. It is not for McConigley to judge the place and its people. Wyoming is neither a good nor bad place to find oneself. It is simply home, whether you are perceived to belong there or not.”
McConigley left Wyoming for a time. She went to graduate school at the University of Houston, where she earned a master's degree. The prospects of living in America’s fourth largest city excited her initially. Houston is home to a Little India, and McConigley hoped to immerse herself in that community.
The experience did not turn out as she hoped. In Wyoming, the number of Indian families is so limited that those who do live here spend a lot of time together, regardless of where in India they came from, McConigley said.
But in Houston many of the Indians segregated themselves by home region. The Bengalis hung out with the Bengalis. The Punjabis hung out with the Punjabis. And McConigley ended up meeting fewer Indian-Americans than at any other point in her life.
She is now back in Wyoming, living in Laramie and working as a lecturer in the University of Wyoming English Department.
“I guess the reason I write is that I do want to make sense of my childhood growing up in a place that, yeah, is really different,” McConigley said. “If I had grown in New Jersey or Texas, I might not have been a writer because I might not have thought about my experience.”
And maybe it's as simple as that. Her experience might be different, but ultimately Wyoming is Nina McConigley's home.