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Nina McConigley reflects on rural immigrant experience

Nina McConigley ’97 transferred to St. Olaf in the fall of 1994 at the beginning of her sophomore year. She sat in the back of an English classroom in Rolvaag and listened to a professor read poetry; she knew she was in the right place.

Twenty years later, on Thursday, April 9, McConigley addressed a crowd of students, English professors and fans in the same room she remembered from all those years ago.

McConigley, who now teaches in the English department at the University of Wyoming, only took one creative writing course as an English major at St. Olaf – during the second semester of her senior year. After she graduated, she worked in the insurance business for a year. She hated it, and decided to give writing a try. McConigley went on to earn her MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston and then her MA in English from the University of Wyoming.

McConigley returned to St. Olaf to read from her acclaimed collection of short stories Cowboys and East Indians. Though the stories are works of fiction, they reflect experiences that the author and her family encountered as what McConigley calls “the wrong kind of Indian” in rural Wyoming. With an Indian mother and an Irish father, McConigley was different from those around her in their tiny oil-and-gas Wyoming town.

“There’s just no other Indians,” she said. “There’s not an Indian restaurant in the entire state of Wyoming.” McConigley read aloud from the first story in the Cowboys and East Indians collection, “Pomp and Circumstances.” The story described a masculine, elk-hunting Wyoming man who shares a personal secret with his employee’s wife, an Indian woman. McConigley joked that nothing much “happens” in her stories, but that they explore the perspectives and identities of characters as they experience life.

“Stories are a really great way to try out different lenses – different points of view,” she said. “Your writing is your witness to what you’re experiencing.” Other stories in the collection feature characters – of different ages and genders and backgrounds – in both the United States and India as they explore questions of identity that have always fascinated McConigley.

“I’m always thinking about my identity,” she said. She talked about traveling to India when she was 23, standing on the street and realizing that, for the first time, she was not in the minority. Even so, she felt like an American in India; she did not necessarily belong.

“I found it really hard,” she said. “I was really confused, and then I hated myself for feeling confused.” This confusion, though, prompted more questions about identity and authenticity not only in her own life, but in everyday experiences of all people. She cited the online self as a universal example.

“I’m a total hermit, but on Facebook I look like the most outgoing, fun-loving person ever,” she said. “I don’t even know what’s authentic about anything – at all. I love that feeling.”

Audience members asked McConigley lots of questions about her journey as a writer, and the author’s responses were thoughtful and frank. She discussed the ways in which creative writing has been an opportunity for her to experience the world.

“[Writing] is a kind of therapy, actually, for me,” she said. “There is a lot of truth. . . but in my stories I can make my characters sassier and braver.”

For all of her discussion of identity, authenticity, and the writing experience, McConigley never came across as lofty or pretentious. Rather, she was funny and friendly and simply a joy to listen to.

“I really am well-adjusted,” she said, to laughs.

Cowboys and East Indians won the 2014 PEN Open Book Award and the High Plains Book Award, and was named on Oprah’s list of award-winning books. Because the collection was published by a small publisher and then received such critical acclaim, the book is essentially out of print at present. However, interested readers can find a copy in Rolvaag Library.