Dispatches from the Moth · Posted On: Nov 09, 2022

The MOTHerview: A Deeper Dive with Nina McConigly and her Story, “Sorry Sari”

by The Moth

Edited by Suzanne Rust 

Our MOTHerview is a interview featuring a Moth storyteller. This month's MOTHerview features Nina Mcconigley, whose story "Sorry, Sari"  begins with Nina coming of age as an Indian young woman in a Wyoming and tackles mother-daughter relationships, cultural and generational divides and the beauty in traditions. 

How did you know that this was the Moth story you had to tell?

My wedding was only a few months before the Moth event in Wyoming, so I was still thinking about the day, basking in being around so many people I loved. And feeling so glad my mom was there to walk me down the aisle. I also had just started fertility treatments, and so I was thinking about how I drank a raw egg during my coming-of-age ceremony to promote fertility (ha ha – so much for that working!). So, all of those threads came together in thinking about the times I had worn a sari that felt so important to me – my wedding, when I was terrified of losing my mom, and that first time. 

You grew up so removed from Indian culture in Wyoming. Was it very challenging? How much did it inform who you are today?

Growing up, I didn’t know any different world. But I did know I was pretty much the only brown face in any room I was in. I think it always made me feel like an outsider, and that informed much of my writing and thinking about race. The rural immigrant experience is something completely different. There are no Indian grocery stores, Indian restaurants or just other Indians – so much of what I knew of Indian culture was through my mother. 

In your story, you said  that when you thought your mother was dying, you were afraid of your Indian-ness dying along with her. How do you keep that part of you alive these days? 

Again, since I knew so few other Indians growing up, and because my father is white, so much of my Indian-ness was informed by her. Her cancer taught me to cook and put on a sari. I have to admit, I don’t wear saris that often, but now my husband and I eat Indian food a lot. He has actually become a very good Indian cook. He spends a lot of time with my mom in the kitchen, and she has written down all her recipes for us. I also love Indian classical music and write to it. I also have now lived and worked in India, so have made my own experiences. 

You have two young daughters. How do you introduce them to their culture? Will you give them traditional coming of age ceremonies, or something unique to each of them?

I laughed as much as I cringed through my coming-of-age ceremony, I now value it. I loved that it was a way to acknowledge that I was becoming a woman, and that my parents now trusted me to start making my own decisions (like bad haircuts). The realm between being a child and an adult was something I was starting to navigate from that moment. I will do the same with my daughters. I hope they see the beauty of a sari, in rituals, and in getting their first bling! 

My mom and I  just did an Annaprashan or rice-eating ceremony for my baby. My mom fed my daughter her first solid food. Now I am very into traditions and rituals.  

What did your mother  think of you telling this story? 

She loved the story. I have often laughed at my horrible haircut and how I insisted on wearing a Speedo with her. And I am sorry that it took her being sick before I really saw her and my heritage in a different way. I had written a fictionalized story about her being sick that’s in my book, Cowboys and East Indians,  but I think hearing the Moth story was different as there was no hiding behind a fictional character. I started to cry when I was telling the story on stage, and I think she was surprised that years later, after a long remission, I still panic when I think of her treatment. Being a fiction writer, I have used many of my life experiences in my fiction, but in fiction, you can twist and subvert things. When you tell a Moth story, you are really vulnerable. It’s the whole truth, and you’re telling it to a room of strangers – it was so terrifying. But I was more worried about what she would think. 

Who are your favorite storytellers and why?

When I lived in India, I worked at a small independent press called Tara Books. We did a series of books with Gond artists – and one of them, Bhajju Shyam, is one of the best storytellers I have ever read or seen. He did a book called The London Jungle Book that is pure magic. 

But otherwise, I love `some weird storytellers – Archie Comics, Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton, and my forever childhood love, Laura Ingalls Wilder. My aunt, the same one in my Moth story, Vijaya Winters, was the best storyteller I knew in person. She would tell us stories about growing up in India, and when she used to be the matron of a hospital on an old tea plantation in Sri Lanka. She would tell us ghost stories about Mohini when we were kids, and I would be frozen to my seat. I am still terrified at the thought of a Mohini! 

Do you have a favorite sari and do you get a chance to wear it? 

My mother’s wedding sari is something else. It is so heavy and feels like holding the sun. I am so glad I got to wear it for my wedding. I probably will never wear it again – it was very slippery silk. But I also love all my mom’s saris – I like looking at the designs on the pallu. I love to see a golden bird or flowers, they are exquisite works of art.  I feel like every one of her saris tells a story – of a place in India, a craft tradition, with its embroidery. 

Please finish this sentence: Storytelling is important because…. 

For those of us on the outside, it’s the only way we will survive. It’s the only way we can make sense of the world, and find our place in it.