VOICES Reading: Nina McConigley

Photo courtesy of Anna Mozingo

On Tues. Feb. 7, Nina McConigley came to St. Mary’s College of Maryland from her home state of Wyoming to meet professors and students, visit classes, and share one of her short stories at the VOICES Reading that evening. She has an MFA from the University of Houston and an MA from the University of Wyoming. McConigley is currently a professor at the University of Wyoming where she teaches English. She has written a book titled Cowboys and East Indians which won the 2014 PEN Open Book Award and a High Plains Award. Other accolades she has received include being named one of ‘50 Phenomenal Women Making a Difference’ in 2014, being nominated for a Pushcart Prize and being nominated for The Best New American Voices.

McConigley shared her short story “Pomp and Circumstances” with the audience the evening she was here. “It is about being the wrong kind of Indian in Wyoming” she said. Indian-American herself, McConigley shared how she rarely sees another person of color in the courses she teaches in Wyoming and her story reflected on that feeling of being a part of such a small minority. Similarly, her characters in the story she shared were “the only Indian in his office” and “the only Indian in his school.”

When introducing Nina McConigley, Karen L. Anderson, Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of the VOICES series, described McConigley’s characters as “subtle, frank, deeply sorry, and sad.”

“Nina writes to the core of race and identity,” Jerry Gabriel, who gave a full introduction of McConigley, said. Her characters portray the deeply private feelings of “never quite belonging.”

The story focused on an Indian family of three that moved to Wyoming after living in India and then Toronto. The story’s events are set in motion when the protagonist Chitra tells a story about hijra, men who become women by adopting women’s dress and behavior, at her husband’s boss’s Christmas party. This later prompts Richard Larsen, the boss, to invite Chitra to his house to have coffee with him and his wife. While she is there, Richard asks Chitra if he may try on a sari, a traditional garment worn by Indian women. Though initially confused, Chitra eventually understands Larsen’s request when he shows her his elaborate cross-dressing closet. The closet, accessed through his gun storage room in the basement, juxtaposes starkly with his “Wyoming cowboy” persona he embodies ordinarily during the everyday. Richard Larsen’s secret love of cross-dressing becomes an intimate and deeply personal secret which Chitra was let in on.

After reading the story, McConigley revealed that she was inspired to write this story as a social commentary on the Wyoming stereotypes of masculinity because of her high school friend she met as an acolyte in church, Matthew Shepard. Shepard, who had been a student at the University of Wyoming, was tied to a fence and severely beaten. Six days later, after not regaining consciousness due to inoperable brain damage, Shepard was declared to be dead as a result of the attack. This event was reported and covered by media outlets as a hate crime because he was openly known to be gay.

“It is unspoken between [Chitra and Richard Larsen],” McConigley writes in the short story “Pomp and Circumstances.” This kind of thing, this kind of secret deviation from the masculine cowboy persona, is the “kind of thing can get you killed in Wyoming,” the story says.