“I love the quiet. The open space. The mountains. The extremes that Wyoming presents. I am most at home when I am in Wyoming.” Nina McConigley

Today's guest on What's Your Why? is Author Nina McConigley.

We discuss Nina's family, growing up in Wyoming in a racially diverse family, and how Nina was often the only brown person in the room.

Emy diGrappa (00:04):

Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities who take a closer look at our human experiences and use stories to explore culture, history and contemporary issues. You can find us on thinkWY.org.

Nina McConigley (00:22):

The stories sort of come out of the experience of being the kind of wrong kind of Indian in Wyoming is the sort of joke I use.

Emy diGrappa (00:31):

Hello, I'm Emy diGrappa and this is What's Your Why? Each week we bring you stories, asking our guest the question why? We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care and what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming, and what better organization than Wyoming Humanities? Serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why?

                 Today we're talking to Nina McConigley. Nina is a writer, professor and recipient of the PEN and High Plains book awards. Welcome, Nina.

Nina McConigley (01:22):

Thank you for having me.

Emy diGrappa (01:23):

Tell us the name of your book and what inspired you to write it?

Nina McConigley (01:27):

The name of my book is Cowboys and East Indians. It's a collection of short stories. There are 10 stories in it, and they're sort of a little bit all based in a tiny bit of autobiography. I was born in Singapore, but we, my family moved to Wyoming when I was 10 months old. My father is a geologist, he's from Ireland, my mom is from Indian, and so I have this sort of biracial identity. I look pretty Indian, but I, I think of myself as biracial, and the stories sort of come out of the experience of being the kind of wrong kind of Indian in Wyoming, is the sort of joke I use, but being the kind of Indian that a lot of times growing up people would come up to me and say “What Tribe are you” or ask questions about identity, because they weren't sure what I was.

                 And, um, you know, Wyoming is a pretty white state, and so growing, definitely I was often the only, um, person of color in the room or, or, or Indian around, so I wanted to write a book sort of about the rural Indian, or the rural immigrant experience, not even Indian, but the rural immigrant experience, because I think a lot of fiction and writing today talks about being an immigrant, but it's in places like New York, or Houston, or California where there is kind of an infrastructure of grocery stores or restaurants or just other people, but being an immigrant in Wyoming, it can be pretty isolating, because there just aren't, there aren't those things. We didn't have Indian grocery stores, and we drove to Denver, 280 miles from Casper to get groceries. There were no Indian restaurants in Casper and we really didn't know that many other Indian families growing up, because we moved to Wyoming in the, in the very late se- in the late seventies.

Emy diGrappa (02:50):

What was your experience in, in school being a person of color growing up?

Nina McConigley (02:54):

You know, I don't think, I don't want to paint, uh, a picture that Wyoming was bad. I think there was just no, there was no frame of reference, like I think people often just didn't know how to place me, and again, that sort of thinking, of asking what tribe I was, it wasn't, it's just confusing of what are you, and that's a question I think about all the time, what am I? I don't know, because I am, I am biracial, and I'm both Irish and Indian, but I look very Indian. So, my experience, you know, Wyoming is, I don't think it's a horrible, racist place, I think every, almost every incident I've had where something odd has happened, it's been a weird moment of misunderstanding or ignorance, it's not someone being overtly awful. I think the only time I've ever had that happen was post, just right after 9-11. I think there was a little anxiety about what I was or who I was, otherwise it's been pretty okay, but definitely that experience of being pretty isolated and being kind of the only different person has led me to think about identity a lot and write about it quite a bit.

Emy diGrappa (03:46):

And so, in your experience at, as a professor at the University of Wyoming, what kind of lessons do you impart to your students?

Nina McConigley (03:55):

You know, at the University of Wyoming I teach Post Colonial Literature and Indian Literature, along with other things, but I get to teach writing of, of places and people that I am really interested in.

                 Always on the first day of class, because I teach Indian Lit, I always have a student that raises their hand and just says “Wait, wait, this isn't (laughs), this isn't Native American Lit?” And I'm like “No, no, it's, it's, it's East Indian,” but my students, you know, even students from really small rural towns in Wyoming, they're really interested. They want to know about other cultures, they want to know about other places, and it's also, I think, I mean, I certainly know this for myself just growing up in Casper, you don't have to think about race very often in Wyoming, because it's not really hitting you in the face very often, so I think sometimes it's pretty amazing for students to all of a sudden, you know, think about issues of cultural appropriation and, you know, what it means to be a little bit different in the world.

                 Also, we're getting into a more global world all the time. I mean, I have engineering students who, they may be engineering and they think “Oh, I don't want to even read lit,” but they are probably going to meet a lot of other Indians in their life and in, in, in that world, and so I find most of my students are really, not even most, almost all of them are incredibly open and interested, and, and just really want to know, because it's so different from their experience, I guess, growing up here, if they're from Wyoming. Uh, if they're even from Colorado and other places, I think they're still pretty interested.

Emy diGrappa (05:09):

Is there a place for you to teach culture competency to students to help people understand how to deal with people in other cultures and be understanding and empathetic?

Nina McConigley (05:21):

I mean, I hope by just reading fiction that you become an empathetic person. I mean, I think for myself as a writer, I always hope that what I'm writing and creating will create empathy, that someone will think “Oh ...” I mean, I've had a lot of people, I've done book clubs all over the state of Wyoming and I've had a lot of people come up to me and say “I've never, I just never thought about race in Wyoming before. I never thought about what it must have been like for you to grow up and be the only person of color in a room all the time,” and in anything, I'm hoping that in reading literature from other people in other cultures, that people will have a moment where they think “Oh, this is what it's like to inhabit somebody else's shoes, this is what it's like to think about being different,” because it's not something I think that a lot of people in Wyoming have to think about a lot of the time.

                 We're not that racially diverse, and, and that's partly also why I feel like I want to teach at the University of Wyoming. I want, I mean, I love Wyoming and I love being here, I can't imagine living anywhere else, but a lot of my friends say “How can you live there?” And I think “Well, well, A, look at the landscape,” and, you know, that's the easy answer, you see mountains, and trees, and open, but I think it's even more important to have people realize like there are people that grew up in Wyoming that are of color, and we like to stay here, and I, I hope that I can show a different perspective of what people think the typical Wyoming person is.

Emy diGrappa (06:28):

Oh, that's wonderful. What or who inspired your writing?

Nina McConigley (06:32):

Wyoming (laughs).

Emy diGrappa (06:33):

Wyoming? Really?

Nina McConigley (06:34):

I think Wyoming. I mean, I, I, I remember at my thesis defense for my MFA my thesis advisor said “You know, Wyoming seems like one of the main characters in your book,” and I thought “It's probably true,” and I think because I come from two different identities, I come from this Indian and Irish background, I don't necessarily know which of those backgrounds I relate to, because I look Indian, but I don't speak [inaudible 00:06:54], I'm not, I haven't really spent that much time in India growing up. I don't, I look so different from my Irish family. I think what I've really latched onto is my Wyoming-ness and my Westerness, and I think that, to me, is the thing that, that really drives my work. I think the land, that sparseness. I think my prose is pretty sparse, I'm not really very lyrical, and I think that's because to me the land is pretty sparse. Not sparse, I mean, obviously it's full of amazing things, but the landscape is, especially around, between Laramie and Casper can be a little bleak. I think that really drives my work. I would say Wyoming the most.

Emy diGrappa (07:24):

Do you have a favorite author that you looked to when you were becoming a writer and-

Nina McConigley (07:29):

Yeah, I, you know, I always say the, the epigraph to my book is from Laura Ingalls Wilder. It's “Ma despised Indians,” which I realize is a very (laughs), is actually a very negative thing coming from that book, but I grew up loving Little House on the Prairie. I thought those books were the best books possible. I think it's because I think of my parents as a new kind of pioneer, coming to a different place, immigrating, going into the unknown. I think those things are very similar to Laura's family trying to come, trying to go, go West and make a life and homestead, but I also, I think her prose is pretty sparse. I mean, I actually love that. I think those Little House books are so unsentimental. I mean, she'll be like “Pa's crops failed, Mary became blind,” and then she just keeps going, she doesn't explain anything, and I really look to her as a sort of guide about not being sentimental in fiction, because I think she does it so well and so perfectly with so few words, so she is like my big, and I know that she's a children's book writer, but really those books inspired me quite a bit.

Emy diGrappa (08:21):

I remember reading those books too.

Nina McConigley (08:22):

They're great.

Emy diGrappa (08:22):

It's true. How did being immigrants influence your mom and dad? I mean, what, what do you think was their experience, because did they speak the language?

Nina McConigley (08:31):

Yeah. I mean, my dad's Irish, so he had moved to the US when he was a teenager, so he, you know, he's been here longer. My mom had come to graduate school in the US and then gone back to India, but, I mean, Wyoming was not what she expected when we were, when we got transferred from Singapore. She looked up Wyoming in an encyclopedia, she went to the American Library, of course she saw the Tetons and Yellowstone, so she thought “Oh great, we're moving to the Alps.” She did not realize we were moving to an oil and gas town. I love Casper, and it's absolutely beautiful, but if you don't know it (laughs), it can be a little, it can be bleak when you arrive, and we moved in October, and she just thought “No, we're not living here.” I mean, the wind, I think the wind alone she thought “No.”

                 The first year or so we lived in Wyoming she did not unpack. She thought we were not staying, tried to get another transfer, and then at some point, you know, my mom shifted and really became vested in the place, and, and really got involved, and my was a for- is a former legislature in Wyoming. She's one of the first, she's the first person born in Indian to actually, be actually elected to a state legislature, and that happened in Wyoming, so kind of rare that that could happen I think in other states.

Emy diGrappa (09:29):

Wow, that's an amazing accomplishment.

Nina McConigley (09:31):

Yeah.

Emy diGrappa (09:31):

What's her name?

Nina McConigley (09:31):

Nimi McConigley. Yeah, she was in the legislature in 1994. She led the way before all the other Indians ran for office, but she was the first person.

Emy diGrappa (09:39):

You must be proud of her. That's great.

Nina McConigley (09:41):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). I am.

Emy diGrappa (09:41):

So, here's our deep humanities question.

Nina McConigley (09:44):

Okay.

Emy diGrappa (09:44):

How does what you do help us understand humanity more deeply?

Nina McConigley (09:50):

I think whenever you're telling stories you're understanding humanity more deeply. I think whenever you're telling a story, you're walking around in someone else's shoes. I talked about empathy before. I think empa- you just have empathy with fiction. I think you, you also enter a world you don't ever sometimes know or understand, and you get to think about characters and in difficult situations or stories of people that you just hadn't imagined, and, you know, I don't know anything about the Congo, but I just Heart of Darkness last week, and, you know, it was a, it just puts you in a different place, and I think that makes our humanity broader. The more we know, the more diverse fiction we read, the more worlds we know, a better and bigger person you are. For me, that's something I really hope, not only for myself and my own fiction, but for my students. I really want them to, I want their world to be bigger, I want them to think about people in all sorts of situations and all over the world.

Emy diGrappa (10:38):

I want to finally ask you, there's always this struggle between the sciences-

Nina McConigley (10:43):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (10:43):

Versus the teaching of-

Nina McConigley (10:43):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (10:45):

The humanities.

Nina McConigley (10:46):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (10:46):

Because you work in the Humanities De-

Nina McConigley (10:48):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (10:48):

Department at the University-

Nina McConigley (10:50):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (10:50):

And you understand that conflict-

Nina McConigley (10:52):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (10:54):

What do you think we can do as humanities people to make it known that, the importance and the value of teaching the humanities at every age?

Nina McConigley (11:02):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). I have so many answers for that, but like the first one I, I know for sure. Like my students who read a lot, I mean, when anyone asks me “How do I better writer,” I'm like “You read. You read a lot.” In any job you have, I don't care if you're an engineer, I don't care if you're an accountant, you have to write and you have to express yourself in some way, so if you're reading, you're going to, you're going to have that, that part of your life be better, but I also, again, I, I read somewhere that they were having doctors take Great Books courses because it made them more empathic in their, in their bedside manner and their ... and I think that that sort of idea that, again, that having that sort of empathy and being able to relate with peoples and, and things that you aren't sure of helps you in any position of your job. You know, if you're an engineer, and you've read a bunch of Indian fiction, and you know how Indian society and caste and religion works, you're going to be able to do your job better if you're working with someone who is from a different place, and, and I think your understand of that is, is better.

                 Again, I think if your world is bigger every part of your life is just better, and I really believe that, and I've had, I've had and I've taught long enough now that I've students that have gone, come back and said to me “You know, I didn't really want to take your class. It was a requirement, I had to do it, to take a lit class or fill a diversity requirement. I still think about those books, I think about those stories, I think about all of these things.” I have, I have an engineering student who went on to Stanford and she keeps in touch with me all the time and says “I've thought about that thing we read,” and I think those things don't leave you-

Emy diGrappa (11:02):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nina McConigley (12:19):

The way maybe some f- quick facts do.

Emy diGrappa (12:20):

Right. Well, it was so great talking to you, and thank you so much.

Nina McConigley (12:24):

Thank you.

Emy diGrappa (12:27):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why, a production of thinkWY, Wyoming Humanities. This has been executive producer Emy diGrappa. Please subscribe and never miss a show. For more information go to thinkWY.org.