In August, Nina McConigley’s collection of short stories, Cowboys and East Indians won a prestigious PEN Open Book Award, a literary honor given yearly to two emerging authors of color. Her stories have been heralded as a new voice to the American West, reflecting on her multicultural upbringing — half Irish, half Indian — in Wyoming.
McConigley admits that, in many ways, she has followed in the footsteps of her mother, Nimi McConigley, 75. Nimi was the first Indian-born person to become a state legislator in the country, serving in the Wyoming House of Representatives from 1994 to 1996, often wearing her traditional Sari on the House floor. Instead of running for another term in the state legislature, Nimi ran against Mike Enzi and John Barrasso for Alan Simpson’s vacated U.S. Senate seat.
“Only in America can a woman, who looks like me and comes from Madras, India, try to fill the size-18 shoe of Senator Simpson,” Nimi told the India Web Post during her election campaign. “I don’t see too many white men in three-piece suits running for the Indian Parliament.”
Nimi and Nina are a mother and daughter that break stereotypes for those with a cursory view of Wyoming and the people who live here. But in every way, they are Wyoming. Their family came from diverse cultures and regions and set roots in Wyoming. Their family came for work in energy and media, and they stayed to build a life that unassumingly includes public service and personal and professional good work.
Nimi attended the Columbia University School of Journalism in 1966 until she went on to serve as a producer-trainee at WGBH TV in Boston from 1967 to 1968. She was one of only two Asian American news directors when she ran Casper’s CBS newsroom from 1988 to 1993.
For Nina McConigley, her school’s Young Author’s contest was more than an excuse to write a clever story. It was her Superbowl. Her mother claims she won every contest from kindergarten to high school.
McConigley, 39, an adjunct professor at the University of Wyoming, was born in Singapore and moved to Wyoming at 10-months-old when her Irish geologist father, Patrick McConigley, was transferred to Casper.
In a state that relishes its pioneer history, both mother and daughter are themselves pioneers of sorts, challenging what it means to be “from Wyoming.” They spoke with WyoFile together in the living room of Nimi’s Casper home, organized to welcome many guests, and full of gifts as the two prepared to celebrate Nina’s birthday.
Nimi, you made history when you became the first Indian-born state legislator in the country. Was public office something you aspired to growing up?
Nimi: No. When I was a child in India, I lived in the inner city of Madras (now called Chennai) in a house with a terrace on top. I would lie on the terrace when it was very hot, and we would look up at the sky and at the planes going by. I could imagine myself on those planes going somewhere else.
I never dreamt in my life that I would have a life outside of what I was growing up with. In India, in those days, particularly, if you were born in a certain status you died in a certain status. I lucked out.
When I was being sworn into the Legislature, I was appointed Speaker of the House for the ceremony, and I was sitting in the speaker’s chair taking my oath of office. I thought to myself: If someone had said to me 50 years ago as a child running around barefoot in the bazaar in India that I would be sitting in the speaker’s chair in Wyoming, I would have said, ‘You’re nuts. You’re crazy, that would never happen.’ But it did. It is possible, and the sky is the limit for everyone.
What was it like when you first moved to Casper?
Nimi: When I arrived here, I was in my thirties. I had two small children, ages 1 and 2 1/2. I really craved a connection with someone who could understand what it was to be the person I was here. The challenge was in the culture.
We had just come from Singapore. We flew out of a magical orchid-filled island to Casper, Wyoming, in October. There were no leaves on the trees. (My husband) Pat, a geologist, took off for the rig almost immediately. I lived in a hotel for seven weeks with the children. On Nina’s first birthday, Nov. 8, 1975, I bought her some toys, and we had a little cake in the hotel room. I remember so vividly, she took her first steps at the Ramada Inn, which is now the Parkway Plaza.
I wore Saris, every day, like I am now, and I would go out in the street with these two kids. I was probably among the first Indian people here in Casper.
Nina, how did you like growing up here?
Nina: I never felt that deprived growing up, weirdly. I think because we were so cut off here, my mom made it a real point that we knew how important India was. And not just India. My dad is Irish, and both my parents didn’t have any family here in the U.S. But it was not until I went to college that I realized that Wyoming really was not diverse and really isolated.
How did you cope with a new place and meeting new people?
Nimi: I started the Casper Cinema Club at the (Natrona County) library with a grant from the Humanities Council. I did it entirely to save my own sanity, because I was used to foreign and art films. I showed (Akira) Kurosawa, (Ingmar) Bergman, (Federico) Fellini, and people came out of the woodwork.
Nina: And my mom never got a babysitter, so we would always go with her.
Nimi: Yes, they went to every single foreign film that I showed, and I showed them every Friday for 22 years. All the friends we have today, I met at the Cinema Club.
Nina: (Mom) is very active in our church and always volunteered at the hospice. She would take us out to the nursing home and make us visit our ‘adopted grandparents.’ That type of service has always stuck with me.
Mom, you have always taught us that we have to give back if we are going to live here. Wyoming is hard to live in, sometimes, and if you are going to live here you have to be involved, you have to make it good. I saw that growing up. I think that is why I love Casper so much and why I love Wyoming so much.
Nimi: People use the term ‘community’ very loosely. It’s a good catch phrase to use, but it becomes almost a jargon term. Community in Casper really exists, but you have to be part of it.
In the last couple of years, you suffered an aortic aneurism followed soon after by cancer. How has that affected your relationship with your daughter?
Nimi: Dying is a concept that is very hard for people to deal with here. But Nina, from 6- 7-years-old, always came with me when I volunteered at the hospice. We visited patients who were dying, and actually (dealing) with death. What Nina saw was not the tragedy of dying, but of people living with the idea of dying.
I’ve had some very close calls. In those moments of crisis when I thought perhaps I was at that end, there was Nina. In Cleveland, when doctors thought I would not make it after a major heart surgery, my husband understandably was very scared. My other daughter, Lila, fainted when she saw me. It was Nina who, without any sentiment, could come in and deal with me — not with this phantom of death I was facing, but with the reality of being alive and telling me what I needed to do: ‘Sit up, Mom. Drink this. Do that.’
She kept me alive by challenging me to live. And that, to me, is the powerful connection that Nina and I have. She forces me to survive and to prevail, and that is an amazing gift for a child to give a parent.
Nina: My mom was diagnosed with cancer five days before I was supposed to go to grad school in Boston. I had sold my car three days before. I had an apartment; everything was set. We got as far as Denver, where Mom saw a specialist oncologist. I asked her (the oncologist), ‘If you were me, would you go to grad school?’ The doctor said ‘No.’
I deferred admission and stayed home with my mom for the whole year (fall 1999- spring 2000). She was in treatment for months and months, and my sister moved home from New York. That was a really horrible year.
Nimi: She didn’t just sit around the house and cry and hold my hand. She went to her old school, which is St. Anthony’s in Casper, and volunteered as a full-time English teacher.
Nina: They wanted to start a gifted and talented program, and they didn’t have any money for it, so they asked if I would start it. That’s how I ended up at UW. Mom wasn’t in remission by the spring, and I suddenly felt that I couldn’t leave Wyoming. But it was kind of this amazing gift because I ended up applying to UW for grad school.
She’s subsequently had another aneurism since then, and a huge part of me wants to stay in Wyoming to be close to her and my dad. I don’t like being far away. They take care of me as much as I take care of them. We squabble a lot, but even when I am in Laramie, we talk several times a day, every day. I am so glad we have been close.
Nina, your mom mentioned earlier that you have a “lack of sentimentality?” What do you think?
Nina: I am sentimental, but I think I hide it. I think I hide it in my fiction, too. I grew up on Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I loved that she would often talk about really terrible things — like Pa would lose his crops, or Mary would go blind — and she was never sentimental. She was just like, ‘This happened, and we have to move on.’ I think that really influenced my fiction a lot.
I think that is a real Wyoming thing: ‘You gotta cowboy up, and you gotta be tough.’ I broke my foot in December and I didn’t go to the doctor for two weeks because I was sure it wasn’t broken. And later I was like: ‘This is where cowboy up gets you: In trouble.’
In many ways, I have always followed Mom’s path, as a journalist and as a writer. She would make us write books for any holiday where we gave her a gift. I grew up on a lot of foreign films, so sex was not a taboo, and I wrote her a romance novel when I was like eight. At one point I wrote, ‘And they made love.’ It was very dramatic.
Nimi: She wrote this story of a girl who wanted to be a ballet dancer.
Nina: That is really what I wanted to be when I was a child, a ballet dancer.
Nimi: And her parents were poor, living in Casper, so she runs away to New York, and she becomes this famous ballet dancer. She debuts in Swan Lake, and her parents come to New York to see her, and they are not very well dressed. She sees her parents among the glamorized New York audience in their fancy clothes, and there is a big moment, an epiphany for her, where she has to decide if she should acknowledge them or ignore them.
Nina: That’s how I felt at the PEN ceremony. No, I’m just kidding, totally joking.
Nimi: Oh child!
Nina: But really, I was looking out into the audience, because I knew that after I gave my acceptance speech my mom would give me the thumbs up or the thumbs down. I got the sign of approval.
Nina, do you love Wyoming, or is it that your family is here?
Nina: It’s Wyoming. I love the land here, the open space. If Mom and Dad died tomorrow, I would still live here.
Nimi: Here, you can be part of the solution. You can make a difference. That is what makes you valid. Wyoming forces you not to be selfish. Right?
Nina: Yeah, if you want to be happy.