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East Meets Wild West

Nina McConigley writes of Indian life in Wyoming.

The contrast couldn’t have been starker. A 15 degree Celsius, breezy fall day gives way, 24 hours later, to a minus 27 degrees Celsius freeze. 

“We skipped a season!” says Nina McConigley, a writer, professor and resident of Laramie, Wyoming—the site of the dramatic temperature drop.

The disparate temperatures are a fitting metaphor for the contrasts with which McConigley grew up. The daughter of an Indian mother and an Irish father, McConigley looks and identifies as Indian. But, she spent her childhood in the American West, in this land of sudden, temperature changes. And, she writes about the seeming 180-degree difference between the Eastern culture and Western lifestyle that juxtaposed to define her life.  

“I think because we were so isolated in Wyoming—there were hardly any other Indians and it’s the least populated state—my mom worked pretty hard to bring Indian culture. We ate with our hands, ate Indian food every day; and our house was very Indian, filled with tapestries and Ganesh statues,” says McConigley. “But I’m also a really rural person. I’m actually not even so much American as I am Wyoming.”

McConigley’s aptly-titled collection of short stories, “Cowboys and East Indians,” which won the 2014 PEN Open Book Award, explores the themes unique to her perspective: what it’s like to look different from everyone else, yet feel more at home in the place you live than in the place of your roots; how it feels to travel back to your family’s home country; what Indian family and relationship values look like against a rural American backdrop.

Her new work is in progress: a novel set in 1980s’ Wyoming in which two families live together and a murder transpires. “It’s perhaps an immigrant story—with a mystery,” she says.

In January, McConigley will participate in the Hyderabad Literary Festival, where she will share more about her background, her journey as a writer and her literary works.

The journey she’ll speak of has taken her around the globe, but has always taken her back to her home state, where she currently teaches Indian literature at the University of Wyoming. McConigley began writing seriously in her 20’s as she worked a series of odd jobs—barista, waitress and insurance agent, to name a few. She ultimately decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at the University of Houston.

“I purposely went to Houston to work with the writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who was my thesis advisor. I wanted to work with her because I didn’t want to spend any time in workshops explaining what dal was or other aspects of Indian culture. She helped me figure out what story I wanted to tell, which was being an Indian in Wyoming,” McConigley says. 

Before she finished her story collection, McConigley spent a year being Indian in India. She lived in Chennai, where she worked at a publishing house called Tara Books. She describes the first few months as a major adjustment: walking to work, riding a bicycle in traffic and bargaining for food on the street were all new. But the rest of the experience was “amazing.” It formed the basis for her story, “Curating Your Life,” in which the protagonist struggles with her identity as an Indian American living in India. 

“The character has a much harder time than I did, but she is always yearning to see the real India, which is something I’ve thought about,” says McConigley. “I don’t know what the real India is though, because everyone has a unique experience of it, of any place. I think you’ll never know what the real of anything is.”

McConigley’s visit to Hyderabad will give her the chance to read in India for the first time, which is “pretty much my life dream,” she says.

Spending a bit more time in India on a regular basis would be nice too, though she doubts she could ever completely leave Wyoming, even with its drastic temperature changes.

“I love love love love the Wyoming landscape. I can’t imagine living in a place where I can’t see mountains everyday and have open space,” McConigley says. “But if I could spend January through May in India and the rest of the year in Wyoming, that would be the perfect life.”

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.