Cowboys and East Indians: Stories
By Nina McConigley
Curtis Brown Unlimited: June 22, 2015
(First published in 2013 by Five Chapters)
162 pages, $10.99
Imagine standing out by virtue of your appearance when you want to blend in. Or being invisible because of that same appearance when you want to be noticed. That is the experience of many bicultural Americans; people view them as “different” because of their appearance when most of them are just as “American” — legally through citizenship and culturally through having been raised in the U.S. It is a situation in which one can feel constantly out of sorts, as though one is a square peg when the holes are round, and a round peg when the holes are square; things just never seem to align properly.
Nina McConigley explores this dual existence in the cleverly-titled Cowboys and East Indians, a collection of ten stories based on her experiences as an East Indian living in Wyoming. Where most fiction exploring the immigrant experience is set in urban environments, McConigley takes us to the high altitude, windy isolation and cozy cities of the least-populous state (584,000 as of July 2014), a place most people would never expect to find Indian-Americans.
McConigley perfectly captures the duality of being pulled in two directions, the culture in which you live and the culture in which your parents and older relatives came from. While it is possible to feel at home in both, there is often a tension in identity “code switching.” The dominant complicating factor is how other people see you; because you look a certain way, you are viewed as foreign rather than “American” (whatever that means). And because people see you as Indian or Asian or some other minority ethnic or religious group, you may well end up becoming a sort of ambassador representing your culture. That has been my experience living in a very Christian area with a relatively small Jewish population.
In each of these stories, McConigley explores characters’ attempts to navigate through their home and outside lives. She also shows us that Indian-Americans are not a monolithic group with uniform positions on religious, social, and political issues. She drives home what should be an obvious point; while the white, Christian majority, with its limited knowledge of Indian-American life, simplifies them instead of realizing that they are as varied as the majority themselves. (We always imagine that others are not as unique as we are.) Not every Indian is Hindu; not all Indian-American women wear traditional clothing; not all Indian-Americans speak one of the many languages spoken in India (there are 23 constitutionally recognized official languages).
McConigley’s characters are quirky, three-dimensional individuals who are working through strange places both literal and figurative. She writes with a pleasing blend of deep empathy, droll wit, and vivid descriptions of people and, especially, places. The unique nature of Wyoming makes it one of the most memorable characters in this collection.
The result is one of the best books of the past few years, a collection in which all the stories make a powerful impression, and one I expect will last a long time. Read it and you will see why Cowboys and East Indians won the 2014 PEN Literary Award. It is THAT good.