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The American West proves itself to be at least as surprising a place as India in Nina McConigley’s debut literary short story collection Cowboys and East Indians. Collectively, these realistic stories create a landscape in which every character, no matter his or her ethnic background, has an equal claim on the human condition and feelings of loneliness, alienation, and desire. Throughout the collection, the reader senses that the world inside the stories is much larger than what we are given on the page, a testament to the author’s skill at choosing the right details.
Several of McConigley’s best stories depend for their narrative energy on the destabilization of fantasies, usually fantasies of belonging. Others present a unique consideration of what it feels like to be seen as an exotic outsider in both Chennai and Wyoming. One story in particular, “White Wedding,” seems to hint at one meaning of the collection in its entirety. The narrator Lakshmi (“Lucky” for short) is biracial, half Indian and half white and feels like she comes up short, unable to fit snugly into either world.
Lucky reflects on her Indian mother’s death by cancer while attending her sister’s wedding and comes to this interesting epiphany about her exhaustion entertaining the wedding guests: “People are always so insanely happy to try something on. Especially when it is exotic. And since her guests were all from New York, and used to seeing Indians, I hadn’t counted on Wyoming being the more exotic of the two.” This theme, that the exotic is simply whatever is unfamiliar from one’s own perspective (for many people, the exotic could be the Wild West even though Hollywood has shown us this place time and again) is echoed in many of the stories.
When writers choose to use very strong cadences or syntax for Indian characters, you never forget the character’s ethnicity and this can either add to the verisimilitude or increase the potential for stereotyping, or both. In several stories from I Am An Executioner: Love Stories, for example, Rajesh Parameswaran chooses to give his Indian characters pronounced accents with varying effects. McConigley’s attention is focused on a different project of finding common ground in emotional truths.
While McConigley’s dialogue includes some syntax and rhythms common among Indian immigrants of different backgrounds and she often elects to invest cultural objects (like saris or dolls) with meaning, more often she focuses on her character’s interior lives in relation to place. Their ethnic background is less essential than the place from which they come.
In the first few stories, McConigley’s prose style ripples with metaphors, giving her fictional world a compelling strangeness. Where authors like Jhumpa Lahiri or Alice Munro strip sentences down to their barest elements, McConigley sometimes engages in a beautiful and lively showiness. The language itself becomes a metaphor for seeing the world outside one’s own consciousness as necessarily surprising and alien.
For example, in the title story, a young woman born in India and given up for adoption as a two-year-old to a white couple struggles with her identity in Wyoming as an “other” solely because of her skin color. She encounters a group of Indian students with “black heads like notes,” one of whom has hair “like origami, all lines” and teeth “like crumpled paper.” When the students help her put on a sari, they dress her “like a wound.”
In “Pomp and Circumstance,” a newly immigrated Indian wife in Wyoming fits in better than her husband after she becomes complicit in a cross-dressing fantasy. Here, from the perspective of the Indian wife, Wyoming’s strangeness is revealed. This is a world in which “the snow fences look like abandoned snake skins in the grass” and lipsticks are “lined up like bullets” and a man possesses a touching desire to wear a sari.
Later in the collection, however, McConigley’s voice becomes more objective in its descriptions, more confident in its storytelling, but also less interested in the potential weirdness of perception when you are an outsider. As the language becomes more transparent, some of the stories start to feel less intuitive and more logically constructed than “Cowboys and East Indians” and “White Wedding.”
In “Reserve Champions,” an uptight white woman competes in a dress-a-doll contest while distracted by a gutted deer that her neighbors shot and hung outside her sewing room window. Although the woman is alienated from those around her as much or perhaps even more than Lucky from “White Wedding,” the language ensconces us in an interesting subculture of Wyoming, rather than looking in from the outside. When we learn of the main character’s distaste for deer meat, for example, we learn that she grew up eating deer that had feasted on sagebrush and therefore tried “to mask the taste of sage and the antelope’s adrenaline with tomatoes and kidney beans. But that taste of the prairie was in every bite.”
There is one story where the imagery and symbols don’t seem to arise quite as naturally. In “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb,” the symbols chosen move us towards a prefabricated meaning rather than building their resonance through a slow accretion of small events, hopes and fears as in the author’s best stories. The story revolves around an insecure white woman obsessed with her acne-plagued skin. She visits India as a medical tourist and discovers that India’s preoccupation with fair and lovely skin can work to her benefit—she is suddenly desirable.
Rather than write about an Indian girl in Wyoming obsessed with the difference of her skin, which might seem the more obvious choice, McConigley delves into skin as a universal metaphor. While this is an interesting decision and most of the story is rich, particularly with respect to the Indian characters and the depiction of the city, the Christian symbolism surrounding the skin feels a bit heavy-handed.
One of the most successful pieces in the collection, “Curating Your Life,” concerns a young Indian American woman who returns to India for a job hoping to find her roots (placing herself both literally and figuratively), only to find she is even less embraced by Indians than her white coworkers are. The language in this last story, like the first few stories is lushly populated with metaphors.
The author gives us a clearly observed portrait of working in Chennai, but more importantly there is a growing dread and angst and willingness to deviate from expectation in this piece that is remarkable. I felt as if the air was being released from all the lazy, binary literary tropes that characterize India as more colorful, exotic, and morally superior (or else more dirty and backwards) than the West.
It takes flexibility and empathy to see the world from such different perspectives, to inhabit a mind as completely as all of the first person stories in this collection do. Nina McConigley, who is biracial and holds an MFA from the University of Houston, has a necessary kind of brilliance for our globalized world. She is interested in people as people, rather than explaining Eastern culture to white audiences or America’s West to Indians.
We need more books like Cowboys and East Indians, which engage our collective humanity through humor and pathos, rather than exploit our most superficial cultural differences. During a time when issues of identity, race and ethnicity can be divisive, McConigley’s stories clear new paths into the human heart.
Anita Felicelli is a writer and attorney who lives in the Bay Area. She is the author of the novel “Sparks Off You” and other books.