Nina McConigley comes from Laramie, Wyoming, about an hour drive over the Colorado/Wyoming border. A few weeks ago, Colorado State was so lucky to welcome her to our very own Gregory Allicar Museum of Art, where she shared a piece from her most recent short story collection Cowboys and East Indians. McConigley was born in Singapore but grew up in Wyoming, eventually leaving to obtain a B.A. in Literature from St. Olaf and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Houston before finding her way back to the University of Wyoming, where she obtained an M.A. in English and now teaches Creative Writing.
As soon as she began to speak, McConigley’s warmth and humor permeated the air of the room, opening the audience to what she had to say. Her demeanor was sweet and approachable but also sharp and witty. She opened with her take on Fort Collins, quipping that citizens of Laramie “think Fort Collins is really wonderful… because of Target.” After warming up the crowd a bit, McConigley began to read. The dichotomy between an author’s on stage persona and actual content, which is usually personal to some degree, is always interesting. McConigley’s seemed to fit together nicely.
The story that she chose to read, titled “Pomp and Circumstances,” was from the perspective of an Indian woman, Chitra, living in Wyoming with her husband and young son. It began simply but poignantly. The family had recently moved to Wyoming from Ontario, from a place with a large population of Indian immigrants to nearly none. Chitra had mixed feelings about this. She was now supremely isolated, but she also did not have to worry about the judgments of her peers in the Indian community for the beauty of her sari or tendency to wear sweatpants to the grocery store.
Throughout the story, Chitra functions as a dynamic character, unashamed of her Indian heritage but also willing to assimilate herself to some facets of American culture. She is traditional in most ways, quiet and unassuming, but also powerful. Despite Chitra’s acceptance toward Americans, subtle racism toward Chitra and her family is woven throughout the story, an issue which McConigley acknowledged both before and after her reading as being particularly present in Wyoming.
However, racism did not reveal itself to be the main theme of the story, but rather acceptance in any light. The plot takes a bit of a twist toward the middle, when Chitra has been invited to have tea with her husband’s boss and his wife. Her husband’s boss, Mr. Larson, invites Chitra to his “secret room,” which initially set my internal alarm bells off. But Mr. Larson’s intentions are pure — he simply wants to show Chitra his collection of dresses and wigs. Mr. Larson is initially painted as a gun-wielding, cowboy boot-wearing manly man, so this revelation is shocking. Chitra, Mr. Larson, and his wife Nancy then share a beautiful moment together dressed up in saris and dresses and snapping photos of one another.
Chitra accepts Mr. Larson immediately for who he is, quietly and without a fuss. Nancy, described as a quiet southern belle, supports Mr. Larson in his endeavors as well. As a listener, I am not too big to admit I teared up a bit at Nancy’s sweetness toward her husband. However, McConigley makes it clear that this brand of acceptance is not the norm in Wyoming; Nancy and Chitra are special.
While McConigley was reading, I couldn’t help but wonder why she chose this particular story. She alluded to some mysterious reason at the beginning of her reading, but didn’t confirm it until after she had finished. The date that McConigley read at CSU fell on the 19th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. Matthew Shepard was a University of Wyoming student murdered as part of a hate crime because of his sexuality. “Pomp and Circumstance” commemorated this tragedy beautifully. The story teaches acceptance delicately, through the use of imperfect but loving characters. I appreciated this message deeply, and further appreciated McConigley’s warmth and stunning prose in delivering it.