FEATURE: Embracing the Hyphen
How ethnic identity evolves in a homogenous place.
Casper, Wyoming – Nina McConigley’s mother placed a feather in her hair. It was close enough to a costume, and McConigley’s dark skin made dressing as an American Indian an easy choice. They do not celebrate Halloween in India, so navigating the American ritual was no easy task for the pair.
“I was constantly asked which tribe I was from,” McConigley said. She believes this is an understandable mistake, since she is a biracial woman born to an Irish father and an East Indian mother. “I don’t look traditionally East Indian, so people just assumed I was Native American.” In a prairie full of racially homogenous people in the middle of Wyoming, it was not a hard leap for most to make. In games of cowboys and Indians, she said she did not even really consider it a possibility to go as a cowboy. She was always the Indian.
But what it really felt like was “The wrong kind of Indian.” That phrase is how the University of Wyoming professor opens her book “Cowboys and East Indians,” winner of the 2014 PEN Open Book Award. Her book, which she will read from at Teton County Library Saturday, is a collection of short stories depicting life growing up in Wyoming as a person of color. In the polarizing world of Casper, self-identification came with a learning curve.
The implied differences and misidentification McConigley experienced with her peers inspired her storytelling in “Cowboys and East Indians.” Each story relies heavily upon her personal experiences, ranging from lighthearted, humorous observations to gritty, empathy-inducing colloquies. “All of those stories, within reason, are in some way autobiographical,” she said.
A recurrent theme in McConigley book is a sense of isolation due to biracial identity. “We were the only Indian family in Casper, as far as I remember,” McConigley said. “Maybe there were a few that passed through with economic opportunities, but we were the only Indians growing up. It’s not exactly the most diverse place.”
According to the 2014 U.S. Census, nearly 93 percent of the citizens of Wyoming are white. With just 3 percent of the population registering as born outside of the U.S., McConigley is a rare exception. At 10 months old her parents moved from Singapore to Casper, where she grew up. She is now teaches East Indian Literature at the University of Wyoming, where she says confusion over her heritage persists.
“This isn’t an American Indian Lit class?” McConigley says a few of her students ask at least once a semester.
“I think it’s funny,” McConigley admits. “I’ll get these shocked looks [from my students] like ‘You’re from Casper?’ Or when I’m touring with my book, and I tell people I’m actually from Wyoming, they ask me why I live there, and I’ll tell them it’s because I love the land.”
You can discern in her voice she is captivated by it. “The land feeds the writing more than being in a diverse place would,” McConigley said. “Once you’ve grown up in Wyoming, it’s hard to leave. At least for me, it’s hard to imagine living somewhere else where there isn’t as much open [space] or mountains.”
Check here for confusion
It was not always that easy for McConigley. Struggling with identity is a big part of growing up for children of any ethnic background, but the institutionalized inability to self-identify can have very damaging effects. Up until 2010, the U.S. Census did not have a box to check that allowed individuals to identify as multi-racial or biracial.
A study by Michigan State University professor Kristen A. Renn on mixed-race college students identified that constraints on the ability to self-identify can be harmful developmentally. A census that only allows a person to identify as one race when they are of multi-racial heritage, according to Renn, can cause identity confusion. These implied polarities concerning ethnic background can eventually cause a sense of alienation toward part of one’s heritage.
“I think I had two lives growing up,” McConigley says. “I had my life at home which was very Indian. My mom kept a very Indian house. We ate Indian food, we ate with our hands, there was a Ganesh statue right as you walked in the door. It was like walking into a little India. My dad was gone a lot as a geologist so the house always felt very Indian, but when I left the house as a child and teenager I did not embrace my Indianness at all. Whether you are of color or not, that’s always the case as teenagers – I mean, I didn’t grow up going to India. I hadn’t been [to India] as a teenager, so a lot of that was I just didn’t want to be different from all of my friends.
“Now I embrace the hyphen,” McConigley said. “I love being Indian. Once I had been to India and I started writing about my experiences I learned to embrace it.”
But embracing the hyphen lends importance for people of all backgrounds. While Jackson local Kurt Thomas did not spend his formative years growing up in a racially uniform area, his experiences in the West were a sharp departure from his homeland of Trinidad and Tobago. In the third grade his family moved from the Caribbean to New York City, and it was there, as an African-American, Thomas says he first experienced identity issues due to his race.
In the United States, Thomas observed, there is a black and white dichotomy that sees dark things as evil and white things as clean and good that does not exist in other places around the world. “In the Caribbean where I was born, it was a melting pot and people are respectful of each other,” Thomas said. “We had Indian people, black people, people from China, and from other different Caribbean Islands. We had different dialects, but you always did your best to respect each other and live in harmony. I never really learned about racism or separation until I moved to the U.S.”
When Thomas moved to New York City it was the first time he realized that some people saw him as different. “Unless someone points out to me that I’m black or different, I don’t think about,” he said. As a young boy at Public School 19 in New York, Thomas was informed by one of his best friends that he was not allowed to have Thomas over because of the color of his skin.
“I think that’s more about the way you’re raised,” he said. “In my family, I was not raised to see people as different or to treat them differently [based on their appearances]. My parents taught me to love and respect everyone, so normally if you’re taught negativity — if you’re taught to not like a different race — then you don’t know better for yourself.”
According to the American Anthropological Association, physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans place on them. That means race is a social construct. But just because something is invented does not mean its ramifications cease to impact people.
For Thomas, when as an adult he moved west to Tooele, Utah, he found himself in an entirely different sphere of people. The small conservative town left him feeling unpalatably different. He said he could tell right off the people of Tooele were not used to interacting with folks of other races. “The people there, they haven’t really traveled or seen other parts of the world,” he said. “They’re in their own little world and think that’s how it’s supposed to be.” Residents of Tooele, Thomas said, might go so far as to cross the street when they see someone walking toward them who look different from them. “Really it’s anyone who isn’t a part of the Mormon Church,” Thomas said.
In other instances, Thomas used to work for the government, driving through parts of Wyoming, like Rock Springs and Kemmerer, where he said the vibe was far from welcoming. “Even though I was carrying a badge and had a gun, it didn’t feel the same,” he said. “Maybe it was all in my head, but you would feel different.” Thomas says he was never made to feel different when he was growing up in the Caribbean. People were people, and that is what mattered.
Maybe coming from a background where Thomas got to see large parts of the globe helped shape his world view. It was certainly formative for him — he believes traveling is the cure for close-mindedness. “You get to see other cultures, the way they live. Sometimes, if you think you have it bad, you go somewhere where they are thankful for a glass of water.” Thomas is awed by the respect some people in other countries have for one another – even in places where they have very little.
Luckily for Thomas, Jackson has been a stark contrast from Tooele, Utah. “While Jackson isn’t as diverse as some of the cities and other places I’ve lived before, people are really welcoming here and very, very open minded. It was actually a shock to me,” Thomas laughed. “I thought people would have been close-minded and not open to diversity, or other people moving to their little town.”
Thomas hopes someday his son will move out to Jackson to raise his family. “I just can’t stop talking about Jackson,” said the airline employee. When his family asks him, “Why Wyoming?” Thomas says he happily responds: “You just have to come out here and feel the beauty and experience the peace for yourself.”
The path to self–discovery
McConigley also has a romantic view of Jackson. She sighs over her memories as she describes a place she venerates as nearly sacred. “Whenever we would go to Jackson as kids, it was like going to a magical place,” she said.
The author worked for Teton Science Schools and lived in Jackson for a few years afterward, where the serenity of the mountains here still inspires her work.
It’s the beauty of places like Jackson and the freedom of Wyoming that helped McConigley first find her identity. “When you’re biracial, it’s particularly complicated growing up,” she said. “I couldn’t look to both my parents. My dad is white, my mom is Indian … you don’t know which world you belong to. I didn’t feel Irish, I didn’t feel Indian, but where I could find my identity was in being from Wyoming. That part I knew.”
McConigley says she took several trips to Ireland growing up, but that was only half of her heritage. It wasn’t until she was 23 and took her first trip to India that she began to relate to the other half. “I started reading a lot of Indian literature for the first time in my senior year of college,” she said. “Before that, as an English major, it was a lot of Shakespeare and Chaucer.” In her Nonwestern Literature class, she was surprised to find herself on the pages of the works by Indian authors, and traveling to her mother’s homeland became like a pilgrimage of self-discovery.
Kallie-Jo Ho is an ethnographer based in Los Angeles. During her college years she made a similar journey to Kashmir where she experienced a funhouse mirror of McConigley experiences in Wyoming. As a white woman in her 20s, moving to a country comprised almost entirely of people of a different ethnic, social, economic and religious background came with a few shocks.
“In Kashmir, I was certainly the minority, not just ethnically but religiously,” Ho said. “I’d say 80 to 90 percent of the population is Muslim, 10 to 15 percent Hindu, and then less than 1 percent Christian/ex-pat, so maybe even more from a religious factor rather than an ethnic one I was different than the majority.”
Ho and her compatriot Caprice Applequist were required to dress like locals for their study in order to respect the culture from which they were learning. “I would cover my head as a sign of cultural assimilation, I wouldn’t show my elbows, things like that,” she said. “It changed my sense of modesty after being there for a few months.”
Another instance in which Ho and Applequist felt challenged was the transition from a fairly liberal Western view of a woman’s place in society to a very conservative one. In many places in Kashmir, women needed to be escorted on nearly all occasions. They were not allowed to freely walk many of the streets, and daily liberties like going to a barbeque became an ordeal as they were required to find an appropriate escort.
Feeling like foreigners in a land full of ancient custom was difficult. The divergence from their liberal attitudes and their less-ritualized western culture led to loneliness and longing, but for Ho and Applequist, the transition was not permanent. With the conclusion of their ethnographic studies after six months, they returned to the U.S.
Ho now teaches English as a second language to immigrants in Los Angeles where she recently finished her latest ethnography “From: América To: Los Angeles,” which details the transition of different people groups of the Americas to the Los Angeles area.
When discussing self-identification, assimilation and loss of culture, Ho thinks it is very specific to the reasons behind a person’s migration. “Some come here to learn,” she said. “Refugees come to flee their country and bad situations with every hope of returning if things get better, but of course that doesn’t always happen. If people come for economic reasons, they have very strict goals in order to support their family, so you see different reasons for immigrating play into that. If a refugee comes, like when Persians came to LA right after 1979 and the hostage crisis and the revolution, they were like, ‘This will blow over in a few years, then we’re going back.’ They had no intention of assimilating, so they very much held onto their identity, but like the Germans or the Irish and the Chinese to a degree, by the second generation, they were barely speaking their home language and were working very hard to assimilate.”
Cultivating compassion through narratives
For McConigley, the idea of assimilation is correlated very strongly with a loss of heritage. Because of this relationship, tracing identity through her Indian heritage has become very important to her, and it translates clearly in her writing.
“I don’t mind being pigeonholed,” McConigley said of being classified as an “Indian author.”
“Some people don’t like being called an Indian-American writer, but I don’t mind that. That is the experience I am coming from. That’s what I’m interested in. That’s what I know. Again, I embrace that hyphen. Of course, it’s nice to be known as just a writer, but being Indian is a huge part of who I am, and I don’t know how I’d separate that from my work.”
But being an Indian-American author has not narrowed McConigley appeal to a wide spectrum of people. McConigley’s stories are captivating and relatable, inspiring empathy and understanding that appeal to anyone that has experienced the woes of adolescence, or the pain of being misunderstood. Her stories also go deeper, unfolding tales of mixed-race identity issues, and isolation due to race, religion and heritage. McConigley’s hope is to present layers to her stories that conjure understanding.
“Ultimately, for a writer of color, there are two experiences I want to put out there,” McConigley explained. “The first is there is a mixed race experience, and the second is you want to talk about the human experiences that we all understand. We all understand what it’s like to not fit in, to want to be a part of a group that doesn’t want you to be a part of it. So even though some of the stories are racially coded, they are human experiences that everyone understands. Everyone has felt like an outsider, we’ve all had feelings of isolation, felt distanced from our families, and along with those human conditions are ideas about race and identity that add a different layer.” PJH
Nina McConigley’s writing and teaching prowess will be showcased this week at the Teton County Library. She will lead a writing workshop at 10:30 a.m., Friday, Oct. 2 in the Ordway Auditorium, where she will instruct fellow writers on the art of describing foreign territories in fiction. She hopes to teach novelists how to cultivate descriptions of places they have never been in a culturally sensitive and authentic manner. McConigley also will read from her book “Cowboys and East Indians” at 6:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 3 in the Ordway Auditorium.