|Nina McConigley and her short story collection Cowboys and East Indians|
When I was just finishing up my undergrad in English, I took a graduate level Renaissance literature class. Such a lovely class. It was taught by Susan Frye, and we learned a bunch about theater and material culture.
But one day Susan said we had a visitor to class, someone who was thinking about going to graduate school at UW in the fall. It was Nina McConigley. She did come to UW and we went through our master’s in English together. What I didn’t know then was that we would become fast friends and she would go on to become this amazing fiction writer!
And now she’s won the PEN Open Book Award for her collection Cowboys and East Indians! You should totally check it out. Even if you don’t normally read short stories, her surprising and insightful take on what it means to be from the American West from both the inside and also, in a weird way, from the outside will change how you view Wyoming and America. She does what I try to do, which is to show her experience of the West, which is to say a view that is not often portrayed in books and movies. We are more various and nuanced than often given credit for.
Which is all to say, this is a good book, and you should buy it and read it. An excerpt from the story “Curating Your Life” to give you a taste.
Our house was in a constant state of erosion. The plumbing backed up. Our outlets would shock us when we tried to plug in toasters, radios. The inverter refused to work when the power cut out, which was often. And lastly, we had discovered, when the monsoons began, that our house flooded. As the rains came in, mold grew like velvet contusions on our cupboard doors, on clothes. The whole house felt moist and sodden. We ran our ceiling fans twenty-four hours a day in an effort to keep things dry. But as our boss explained to us, Mrs. Prabha was one of the few landlords who would not only rent to foreigners, but also rent to boys and girls who were not married.
Mrs. Prabha rarely called to me. And when she did, she used my Indian name, not Rae, which everyone else called me. “Raema! Raema!” Her intonation rising like a loaf of bread. “Raema! You are leaving your fans on when you are not home. Raema, don’t do this!”
She only scolded me. To Mark and Kate it was “Are you settling?” To Kate, she offered cooking lessons, to take her shopping for the best salwaar kameezes, to take her to her astrologer (who had predicted a year ago she would be dead in five years). But on the few occasions when I would meet her at our large wrought-iron gate, she would look at me and tell me that she had a treadmill I could use. She told me I needed to get a facial. She didn’t think I looked as pretty, as the walking in the sun to and from work was making me more dark and tan
“Too dusky, Raema!” she scolded me.
The dampness that spread into our house, I felt inside of me. My very core since being in India felt gummy and thick. I lay in bed in the mornings and felt heavy-limbed and tired, even though since arriving I was getting, some nights, almost ten hours of sleep. In the evenings, before I climbed into bed, I would sit cross-legged on the floor on a thin bamboo mat that molded when wet. I would sit there and imagine the Wyoming sky. So blue. So clear. I pictured nothing but prairie filled with sagebrush, sego lilies, rabbitbrush, and endless open. I saw the Big Horns. The Absarokas. The Wind Rivers. The Snowies. I pictured mountain ranges like vertebrae, rising up after miles and miles of empty open range. I thought of dryness. Of how my nose bled in the winter from the altitude and lack of moisture. I slept most nights with a humidifier. I felt the air in India. While back home, I felt nothing — or perhaps the air felt so natural, you didn’t have to think about it.
Mark and Kate were from San Francisco and Boston. They were twenty-three and semi-fresh out of college. Both of them had worked one office job since graduation. I tried to hide the fact that I was thirty. That I was probably too old for the internship we all had at the Pink Lotus Foundation. I’d thought in the few emails we had exchanged before arriving in India, that I would have the upper hand. That I was the Indian.
The roommates kept blogs. They were members of all sorts of social networking sites. And that is how we met our circle of friends. A strange mix of people whom, in other circumstances, probably none of us would hang out with. Ferengis. All of us. There was Kit, who was studying dance and had a body so lean and muscled, I wanted to touch her. Her blog had pictures of dances she attended, temples she had visited. There was Hep, who was quick to tell us he was Canadian. He even had a small Canadian flag sewn onto his messenger bag as if to tell India he was not one of us — he was a more sympathetic creature from a land of maple trees and peace. I never really understood what Hep did. He was working illegally and told us that every six months he left India for Nepal or Sri Lanka to renew his tourist visa. But when he was in Chennai, he seemed to work at some sort of computer job. His blog featured him widescreen in Nepal, a mountaineer’s hat on his head, climbing rope wrapped around his arm like a lasso.
There was a group I called the Ivies. All strikingly beautiful. Sturdy, rosy-cheeked, and well put together. All had Ivy League educations. India hadn’t rumpled them as badly as the rest of our ragtag group. Whenever we met for drinks or for concerts, their linen pants would look pressed, their feet clean. They worked at non-governmental organizations and, I imagined, would head back to places like New York or Chicago. Places where good jobs would open like a ripe clementine. For them, social change was a profession, a year in India fitted in between undergrad and graduate school. By time they were thirty, they would be living in houses with granite countertops and in-home theaters.
There was the tech crowd. These IT-ers made U.S. salaries in India and were always suggesting drinks at five-star hotels and impromptu trips to Pondicherry where wine was easy to get. They spent most weekends at resorts near Mahabalipuram, drinking beer on the beach, weedy-looking boys in tight pants fetching them whatever they fancied. Their boring cubicle life that would have been reduced to a comic strip in the United States not only allowed them to live like sahibs, but to act like ones as well. For them, going native was the few minutes they negotiated for auto rickshaws. Their glee in saving ten rupees was trumped only by the fact that they all headed back to flats with sweepers that came in every day to scrub their shit from their toilets.
Lastly, there were the in-transits, people who came and went, who were passing through India on treks or travels. Studying yoga, coming to stay in ashrams, or just to bask on the beaches of Goa or Kerala. The in-transits wore a uniform that was a combination of East meets West — loose salwaar pants coupled with graphic American t-shirts, sari slips with fleece, jeans with ill-fitting woven tops. For accessories, they favored things made of shells, beads, and silver. They wore leather sandals with soles as flat as chapatis. After a month, I barely talked to the in-transits at parties. What was the point? They would be gone. And for the most part, they didn’t want to talk to me. They wanted to talk whitey with other whites. Because even though I was American, it was hard to say to a brown face that you hate Indian food, the streets stink, and that you think all auto rickshaw drivers are thieves.