A and Toua Vang fled Vietnam after the war. They now run a tailor shop in Des Moines in addition to growing vegetables.
A and Toua Vang fled Vietnam after the war. They now run a tailor shop in Des Moines in addition to growing vegetables.
November 29, 2013


In Thailand, a Hmong family flees through the jungle, doping their children with opium to keep them quiet so as not to tip off pursuing soldiers.

In Ethiopia, a young Sudanese man is kidnapped at gunpoint because he helped start a school for children living in a refugee camp.

A Mexican family files paperwork to emigrate to the U.S. in an attempt to escape a country riddled with drug cartels and violence, where "no one (has) cars, but everyone (has) guns."

In the Netherlands, a Dutch family packs up its 750+ dairy-cow operation to transplant it out of the delta where it lies trapped between two rivers and across the Atlantic Ocean.

All arrived in Iowa in the heart of winter.

All questioned if they would stay.

But spring dawned, and all slowly found peace in Iowa's fertile soil.

In her new verbatim play, "Vang," Carroll County native and Iowa poet laureate Mary Swander tells their stories using their own words.

"It's nonfiction," she explained. "The words in the play are drawn from the interviews, from reality" - literally verbatim.

The title "Vang" means garden or farm in Hmong. It calls attention to a central theme of the piece, one Swander was surprised to find threading through her interviews - that of a garden as an agent for healing.

"We think of farming as a business, not as having a spiritual component or as something that would relieve trauma because we're not, as a whole, all that traumatized," she said.

The project started nearly four years ago when Swander received a grant from the Iowa State Center for Excellence in Arts and Humanities. She has already written one agricultural play, "Farmscape," a verbatim play that looked at the changing realities of agriculture on the prairie. Taking a suggestion from the state's former folklorist, she sought to include more diversity in her next play, looking at agriculture through the eyes of recent immigrant farmers. She connected with Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Dennis Chamberlin, and "Vang" was born.

They began at the Des Moines farmers market, but the Hmong selling vegetables there were very leery of the stranger asking questions about their past. They also had several adventures in Bosnian bars in an attempt to find a European immigrant farming family, but to no avail. Swander soon realized she would have to find contacts who already knew the immigrants to give her a way in. Even then, the process still took about three years.

"That was one of the surprising things," Swander said. "I've done a lot of interviewing in my life for books and plays, but this took longer. It took awhile to develop rapport."

The interviews themselves were also challenging. In some cases, Swander did her work through interpreters, and in others, the content was so emotional that the interview subjects broke down, unable to finish talking. In the end, Swander had interviewed between 15 and 20 families, finishing with roughly 350 single-spaced pages of interview transcripts and representatives from four continents - Asia, Africa, North America and Europe.

"It raises some social-justice issues," she said of the resulting play. "One, how we treat immigrants in this country of immigrants, and two, what our food system is like ... what refugees and immigrants we welcome and which ones we don't."

Where the Mexican immigrants face derision and fill dangerous jobs in the meatpacking industry, the Dutch immigrants are actively recruited to establish dairy operations. In some cases, the Dutch actually wind up employing their fellow Mexican immigrants. In others, the Mexican immigrants move out of the meatpacking plants and into the health-care industry, where they wind up taking care of U.S. veterans, such as through the Marshalltown Adopt-a-Vet program, organized by one of the women in Swander's play.

"It's breaking stereotypes," said Swander, who couldn't believe it when one audience member said during a post-show talk-back session in Des Moines that he thought all immigrants were illegal. "It's educating people, and the people in the show say, 'There are problems with immigrants, our group has its problems, but we're not the stereotype you think'."

Swander did not have to travel more than 100 miles from her home base in Ames, where she teaches a variety of graduate and undergraduate writing classes at Iowa State University, to conduct all of her interviews. She is encouraged by this indication that diversity in rural areas is growing, a diversity the area has not seen since a variety of different ethnic groups settled the region during the state's founding.

Her own family was one of immigrant farmers from Ireland who fled during the potato famine and ensuing political uprising. They traveled to Iowa, where they homesteaded in Carroll County. Born in Carroll and raised in Manning, Swander is the daughter of Jack and Rita Swander and the granddaughter of Nellie Lynch.

The interview process gave her a "more profound sense" of what her own ancestors faced, lonely and longing for a familiarity that never really comes back.

"I got a better sense of what they were up against, fearing for their lives and desperately poor, coming here," she said. "How soon we forget, you know?"

Matt Foss, lead actor and director, designed the play to be very flexible. It was first performed at Iowa State University last spring and has since been performed in a variety of spaces, ranging from beautiful, state-of-the-art theaters in universities and museums, to small classrooms and even a church basement. The audiences have varied as well, from homogenous white populations to entirely minority groups, with the talk-back sessions revealing their own surprises.

"It's a play that cuts across class and political stances and agricultural beliefs that gets to the basic core of the human condition," Swander said.

After one show, Swander was approached by a young female veteran, who said she could relate to the immigrants perfectly. She wasn't comfortable in Afghanistan, she explained, but when she returned to the U.S., she didn't quite fit in here, either. The country she returned to was not quite the country she left.

"I had not thought of the larger metaphor, that this is about anybody who feels displaced in any way, or even between two states or phases in their life, and that sensation that the bottom has fallen out for you, you don't have any bearings anymore," said Swander.

Written with no political agenda, Swander said, she believes "Vang" is thought-provoking, socially conscious, powerful and moving. It "puts the balls in the air" and leaves it to the viewer to connect the dots and interpret them "however they please."

"We drive down the street, go to the farmers market, walk through the university and rub shoulders with these people, and we don't have a clue what they've gone through," she said. "We just don't know each others' stories, and they're powerful, moving stories."

Swander will be in Carroll Tuesday, Dec. 17, to conduct a poetry workshop at the Carroll Public Library. She hopes to eventually bring the play itself to Carroll as well.

Having discovered a sort of agricultural drama niche, Swander was most recently commissioned by the Practical Farmers of Iowa to write a play on land transition. Though based on interviews with farmers, bankers and lawyers involved in the process, this play, a "King Lear" of the agricultural world, will not be verbatim. She is currently finishing final script revisions, and hopes to begin producing the play this summer.

For more information on "Vang" and other works, visit www.maryswander.com.