The title of Nina McConigley‘s debut story collection, Cowboys and East Indians (Five Chapter Books), reflects her cross-cultural, well-traveled history. She was born in Singapore, grew up in Wyoming, and earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from universities in three different states. This constant movement, perhaps, is what gives McConigley’s fiction its observant, thoughtful tone. Her narrators inhabit their worlds almost as curators, observing and explaining themselves to the audience. Appropriately enough, the title of another story, “Curating Your Life,” was a notable story in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 edited by Dave Eggers.
McConigley currently lives in Austin, TX, and is at work on a novel. She took time to answer a few questions about her story “White Wedding.”
Toward the end of “White Wedding,” the narrator, Lucky, thinks, “When people asked me about being bi-racial, I had a pat answer.” She’s clearly aware of the insufficiency of the answer but doesn’t have a better one (at least not that she can articulate). On one hand, she feels increasingly disconnected from white Casper. On the other hand, Lucky doesn’t feel a strong connection to her Indian heritage, either. These are huge, existential questions, and yet the story never becomes ponderous. The narration is always rooted in particulars: the town, the mother’s sari, the bridesmaids in the wedding, the regulars at the coffee shop. How did you manage this balance—portraying a character’s deep-seated, internal uncertainty while keeping the story rooted in concrete detail?
Of all the stories in the collection, this was perhaps the most personal one. Many aspects of this story are autobiographical. So, I think in many ways, the story echoes my own uncertainty about questions I have about identity. For me, it’s hard to write about this subject without getting a little sentimental. But, I am a Wyoming girl through and through. Wyoming has a very live-and-let-live attitude. People lose cattle, oil prices drop and we go into a bust, weather is brutal – and people don’t complain. They just get on with it or cowboy up.
I wanted the story to reflect a bit of both attitudes. That Lucky was dealing with hard and big questions, but she also didn’t wallow in it. She got on with her life. Thanks for saying I managed a balance – I think I am always struggling with that. This was the very last story I wrote for the collection, and again, the most personal, so I really was working hard not to make death, not to make talking about identity in a way that was eliciting a lot of sympathy towards Lucky. I wanted to tell her story by her routines, by her actions.
Many beginning writers can feel overwhelmed by the notion that every object in a story must have symbolic or emotional significance. How do you choose the details and imagery that recurs in a story? Is it luck? Do you place objects into a story and hope they will gather significance like a rock gathers moss? Or do you plant the images intentionally?
A bit of both! I wish I could say I was actually a lot deeper than I am and certain images or objects were so planned and planted. But, many things that carry weight in this story do occur in small town Wyoming life. The prairie dog (although I like that Lucky sits and thinks about all the other symbols she could have been) is something I see all the time, and I find their movements so intense and curious.
I knew I wanted saris to come in the story. Saris for Indian women hold such weight, and I wanted them at the wedding, I wanted them in a scene with the mother. They are a costume and they are an important cultural object. I realized when I was talking about saris in the past, they had to come up again in the present. But I always knew I was going to end the story with a prairie dog and the reader not knowing if she’d killed it or not. The rest were probably luck…
I love the first paragraph of this story. It’s a list of all the ways the narrator encounters whiteness in her life–beginning with her sister “marrying white” and ending with “at the last Census, Wyoming was 93.9% white. We fell into the 1.5% that was Other.” What I find so amazing about this paragraph is how you move from the particular to the sociological. Not all writers would think to consider their character’s situation from such a broad perspective. What made you move in that direction? What did that perspective add to the story?
I think in many ways, for me, writing about race and about growing up in Wyoming has been hard for me. Also, I am bi-racial – so I think I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about identity. In some ways, just being factual, being matter-of-fact, helps me tell the story better.
Again, a lot of this story is autobiographical. I love Wyoming so very fiercely. It is my home in a way that is deep and strong. But, I also grew up seeing almost no reflection of myself beyond my mother and sister. It gets to you a little. But, I don’t want to seem like woe is me when I say that. Wyoming made me who I am. In my writing I want to acknowledge and praise the place, but also be honest about my experience of being different in a pretty profound way.
By listing the facts, I was hoping I could do that fairly.
You’re a pretty varied writer. You’ve written stories, journalism articles, and a play. I gather from your website that you’re now at work on a novel. How does your experience with that form compare to the others?
Oh, I am feeling very adrift with novel writing. I have to admit, with stories, I think for a long time before I write, writing most of the story in my head. So, when I sit down to write, the first draft comes pretty quickly (I may think for months!). That has not been the case with this novel. It’s been so much slower. And I’ve had to plan so much more, and dare I say it – outline.
It also affects my reading. I can’t read a novel now without looking at the structure, the pacing, how information is released. It’s changed everything. I started a novel two years ago that went nowhere, and at that point, I thought I don’t have it in me to write a novel. But, then I had a story in my head that had too much business for a short story. It’s turned into the novel. I am almost done, and it’s been like no writing experience I’ve ever had. I haven’t really shown it to anyone yet, but I am kind of in love with it. It may go nowhere, but I feel really proud of writing a novel.
Michael Noll edits Read to Write Stories.
To find a writing exercise based on “White Wedding,” click here.