FAYETTE, Iowa — Mary Swander remembers the young veteran who spoke to her after "Vang," her play about recent immigrant farmers, was performed in Ottumwa.
"She told me that I might think it was odd that she could relate to the play so well, but she had served in the Army in Afghanistan, and she felt like the immigrants," said Swander, Iowa Poet Laureate and Distinguished Professor of English at Iowa State University. "She felt like she was between two worlds. She didn't fit in Afghanistan, and she didn't fit in the United States, either. I realized that the play is about a lot more than immigrant farmers, it's about that in-between space we all experience at one time or another. It's about adaptability, resilience, ingenuity and entrepreneurship."
Matt Foss, ISU theatre department lecturer, directed and performed in Vang along with ISU student Annie Feenstra during a recent production at Upper Iowa University. The two actors took on the roles of all eight immigrants in the one-hour play. Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and ISU journalism professor Dennis Chamberlin took the immigrants' photographs that were projected onto a theater wall.
Vang means "garden" or "farm" in Hmong, and the play tells the stories of Toua and A Vang, of Des Moines, Joseph and Haime Malual, of Des Moines, Beni and Ramona Lopez-Chavez, of Marshalltown and Jan and Dorine Boelen, of Brooklyn. The Vangs fled Communist bullets and wild tigers through the jungle of Laos and across the Mekong River to a refugee camp in Thailand after the Vietnam War. Today, they own a tailor shop in Des Moines and operate a small organic vegetable farm. The money they make from selling produce at the Des Moines Farmers Market is donated to refugees in Thailand.
Joseph Malual, who was educated as a social worker and forced to leave Sudan because of civil war, was thrown into a sweltering Ethiopian prison for helping the Lost Boys. He was left gasping for air through a crack under the prison door. Rescued by the United Nations, he was dropped off in Des Moines in the middle of winter with nothing warmer than a jeans jacket. Eventually his wife was able to join him. He is completing his doctoral degree in sustainable agriculture at ISU, and he helped start the immigrant community gardens in Des Moines. He grew up in an oasis on the Nile and spent his childhood herding cattle walking a distance similar in length to that of Des Moines to Omaha as the herd grazed.
Ramona and Beni both came from Mexico, and Ramona taught herself English by looking up the meaning of the profane words hurled at her at her first job in a Marshalltown meat packing plant. She and Beni formed Latinos for Action, and Ramona has lobbied for immigrants in Washington, D.C. They also created Adopt a Vet to help veterans in need of a meal, a home or other support.
The Boelens left the Netherlands to operate a 1,000 cow dairy farm near Brooklyn and arrived just when milk prices crashed in 2008. The government wouldn't allow them to expand their dairy operation in the Netherlands because of its proximity to a nature preserve. In the play Dorine talks about how their son dressed as a cowboy, put the flag of the Netherlands through the paper shredder and declared, "I am an American."
Swander was encouraged to write about recent immigrant farmers after the success of "Farmscape," a play she wrote with her ISU graduate students, based on interviews with people involved in the changes in Iowa food production and rural life.
It came together
About the time she started exploring the idea, Chamberlin told her he wanted to photograph sustainable agriculture and immigrant farmers.
Finding immigrants who were comfortable talking about their lives took some doing. Swander drew on connections with colleagues and other friends, and the process became part of the play.
She visited some of them multiple times because their lives were so traumatic they would recount a horrific event and then be unable to continue until later. Interviews were transcribed word for word — 350 single-spaced pages with typing on both sides. She pared that down winding their verbatim words into a 50-page script where the immigrants speak of their struggles, survival skills and intense desire to return to the land.
Chamberlin took photographs of the immigrants in their greenhouses, farm fields and dairy barns. Michael Ching, past executive director of the Memphis opera, composed the play's music.
The immigrant farmers came from four continents, speaking more than six languages. In their own way they adjusted to life in the United States, Swander said. Many took the only jobs they could find — but all the immigrants grew up on farms and wanted to farm again.
"The public often thinks of farmers as white males of European ancestry living in isolated rural areas," Swander said. "And the public often thinks of immigrants as those who have slipped into the United States to take advantage of assistance programs. Vang blows both of those stereotypes and opens discussion about how farming is done here and how immigrants have become part of the larger agricultural picture."
At the end of the play, there is a talk back time when the audience can ask questions and make comments. Swander, Chamberlin and Foss have plans for a website to allow Iowans to post comments about their immigrant experiences.
More performances, other projects
With the aid of a grant from the ISU Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities, Swander, Chamberlin, Foss and Feenstra have been touring the play across the country.
The play is now in the midst of a meat packing plant town tour.
Vang will be performed at 7:30 p.m. May 9 at the Postville Fine Arts Center in Postville and at 7 p.m. June 28 in the Washington Free Public Library in Washington. An Independence performance is planned for August and a West Liberty production is coming this fall. Denison and Manning performances are also in the works.
Both Vang and Farmscape will be staged May 3 at the Carnegie Library Museum in Perry.
Farmscape was featured at the Stone Barns Young Farmers Conference in New York in December and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called and asked if she would perform the play at a USDA staff retreat.
Swander will debut "Map of My Kingdom," a play commissioned by Practical Farmers of Iowa that tackles the critical issue of land transition. It will be at 7 p.m. July 12 at Scattergood Friends School in West Branch.
In the play Angela Martin, a lawyer and mediator in land transition disputes, shares stories of how farmers and landowners she has worked with approached their land transitions.
"Some families struggled to resolve the sale or transfer their land, dissolving relationships," Swander said. "Others found peacefully rational solutions that focused not only on viability of the family, but also of the land."
To find out more about "Vang" and Swander's other projects, see www.maryswander.com.