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CSU Creative Writing series kicks off with themes of identity, inclusion

A pile of books is surrounded by fall leaves
Author Nina McConigley read a story from her collection, “Cowboys and East Indians” on October 12, at the University Center for the Arts.

You never thought you would hear “cowboys” and “East Indians”  in the same sentence.

That is the title of Nina McConigley’s 2013 short-story collection. The collection is focused on themes of identity, race and belonging. McConigley, a literature professor at the University of Wyoming, read a story from the collection October 12 at Colorado State University. 

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McConigley was the first reader of the 2017-18 season for CSU’s Creative Writing Series. The series, directed by English professor Camille Dungy, brings fiction, poetry and non-fiction authors to CSU. McConigley also held a longer question-and-answer session in Morgan Library the next morning.

The story McConigley read, “Pomp and Circumstances,” emphasized the theme of identities.  McConigley said she read the story in tribute to Matthew Shepherd. Shepherd, a University of Wyoming, student was brutally strung to a fence in 1998. The story illuminated the culture of masculinity in Wyoming, according to McConigley.

“A lot of that is that stupid attitude of cowboy up,” McConigley said.

The story’s protagonists are an Indian immigrant and outwardly self-confident Wyoming man. Both are figures on the margins. The Indian woman is a minority in a small town, caught between American customs and being Indian. At points, she relishes the opportunity to wear jeans and cotton tops and rebel against certain customs. At others, she feels a sense of being the “other” in a less-than-diverse state. The Wyoming native is fascinated by dresses and literally keeps a collection in a hidden closet. Both characters struggle to deal with their sense of self and acceptance.

McConigley’s collection won the 2014 PEN Open Book Award, in addition to a High Plains Book Award.

Born in Singapore, McConigley is the child of an Indian mother and Irish father. McConigley grew up in Wyoming. She addressed themes of identities and geography in her introduction, the story itself, and following the reading. She also touched on the themes the next morning.

“It (Wyoming) is a state that is hard in a lot of ways, especially in diversity,” McConigley said Thursday night. McConigley also noted that her parents’ foreignness complicated her childhood. At one point, McConigley noted that she was one of the few students at school who had not watched “The Cosby Show.”

McConigley said there are “moments you realize you are not like everyone else.”

“Identity is something we are always figuring out,” McConigley said.

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At the question-and-answer session, McConigley also addressed the impact of her work, including its effects on Wyoming readers. McConigley said conversations about race are often sparked.

“I do a lot of book clubs,” McConigley said. “Usually, they are older people and they say I have never thought of this.”

Some reactions were striking.

“I went to this group of older ladies in Cheyenne,” McConigley said. “They said this is dark.”

 McConigley emphasized that the lack of diversity contributed to the reactions.

“Everything about people of color seems so far away,” McConigley said. “People just don’t understand.”

McConigley got into writing as a child. Her mother refused to allow her and her family to exchange gifts, McConigley said. She had to find another solution.

“I would make her a book or a story,” McConigley said.

Autobiography plays a huge role in shaping McConigley’s fiction. Growing up in Wyoming, McConigley and her sister were the only two Indians in their high school.

The number of students? 1500.

“I do tend to write what I know,” McConigley said. “To write it, (I) get to make sense of things I didn’t know how to make sense of.”

McConigley said that she is a “binge writer.” However, the aftermath of the 2016 election has taken its toll on her writing.

“Since the election, I have not written much at all,” McConigley said. She has also struggled to understand students who voted “differently.”

McConigley’s Thursday reading had strong impacts on attendees.

Kevin Olson, a senior journalism and English major at Colorado State, attended the Thursday night reading. Olson was greatly impacted by McConigley’s subject matter. 

“It was wonderful,” Olson said. “It was nice to hear a different voice, a different vibe.” 

 The themes of identity and belonging resonated with Olson.

“It was such an intimate cross-section of peoples and communities,” Olson said. “We need more people at the cross-sections speaking out.”

Next MFA Reading Series event: Thursday October 26

Who: Felicia Zamora, poet.

When: 7:30 pm.

Where: Greyrock Room, Lory Center at CSU.

Collegian reporter Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @dudesosad

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