This Is Iowa: Finding Culture in an Unexpected Place
People from all over the world are building their lives — and writing their unique stories — in Iowa.
Imagine you are reading a collection of stories of immigrants and their families, a montage of monumental journeys, of found identity and traditions carried across oceans. They tell of a woman who crossed the Mexican border at the age of six as an undocumented immigrant, a Bosnian-American daughter whose parents crossed the ocean in search of a bettter life, a Vietnamese-American woman whose family escaped down Mekong River and came to our shores. All of these extraordinary people’s journeys brought them to a single state.
At first blush you may think this story collection is from California, Arizona or New York, but you would be wrong.
This is Iowa.
Iowa has long carried the reputation of being inconsequential. Aside from its role in the presidential caucus, it is often overlooked as a one-dimensional puzzle piece of flyover country. And yet, whether they’ve come for the promise of agricultural work or picturesque family life, for a fresh start or for a return to generational roots, people from all over the world are building their lives – and writing their unique stories – in Iowa.
I came to Iowa by way of my great great grandparents – my mother’s grandmother, Sarah Courtney of Ireland, was the eldest sibling, and set to inherit the family potato farm. Before her parents passed, her brothers put her on a boat to America, setting her out for new lands. I’m grateful to Sarah for the hardships she undertook, knowing that my own origin story in America started with her.
Growing up in a small Iowa town with a meat-packing plant, intersections of culture would become a theme of my childhood. By the time I was in high school, Columbus Junction, once a primarily white farming community, was home to 13 different Latino cultures. While there were tensions and growing pains, as there are anywhere new populations move in, the town slowly ebbed and flexed to meet the needs of its citizens, adding new social services, a soccer team, and supporting over a dozen Hispanic and Latino stores and businesses within our mainstreet district.
In the early 2000s, the packing plant, now Tyson, began to recruit and resettle Chin Burmese refugees, many of whom were escaping persecution and great hardship. Once again, the town absorbed and accepted change – most notably, the Methodist church gave the entire Chin community space for their services on Sunday afternoons. Even when misunderstandings arose (for example the unexplained red stains in the pews that were eventually identified as leftover spit of betel nut chew), the community found a way forward together. Working it out became a way of life in a place that was constantly evolving.
Columbus Junction wasn’t the only meatpacking town in Iowa, and between seasonal agricultural work and the many processing plants, the Midwest’s immigrant population was growing exponentially. Thousands of new residents each year joined our Iowa communities, and that meant tens of thousands of life stories intersecting, a diverse tapestry of populations and histories woven together across the state.
After college, like most young people, I needed to spread my wings. I hit the road, leaving Iowa in the rear view mirror. Ten years later, after work in advertising sent me all over the country (and a travel obsession sent me all over the world), I decided it was time to come home. I was ready to write full-time, and the lure of Iowa City’s literary legacy brought me back.
After coming back to Iowa, I started the Iowa Writers’ House, a space for workshops, support and residencies in Iowa City’s world-famous writing community. But three years in, having put on hundreds of workshops and programs, I faced an unavoidable truth: the barriers of literature. I saw that time, money and education were all obstacles to one’s voice being heard, and with those barriers firmly intact, an entire echelon of society wasn’t getting represented at a national literary level, let alone here in Iowa.
In a time when the need for diverse voices is more crucial than ever, I wanted to create a program that provided writing training for immigrants and their families, and removed the barriers to publication. In addition, I wanted to turn their stories into a book that Iowans would have in their hand within a year. And that’s what we did.
In just two years, the Bicultural Iowa Writers’ Fellowship (BIWF) has provided over 1,000 hours of writing mentorship and education to ten immigrant, first- and second-generation, and indigenous writers. The collection of immigrant stories I described earlier? Those are the stories you’ll find published in “We the Interwoven,” an anthology series written by the people in the Bicultural Iowa Writers’ Fellowship.
After their stories are written, we work with international translators to translate the words into the writers’ native languages. When we design and publish the books, the in-language stories sit right alongside the English. For readers who didn’t know Iowa had anything but farmers, seeing Iowan stories written in Arabic, Vietnamese, Bosnian, Spanish and Azeri is a profound lesson on its own.
“We the Interwoven” is a rare and firsthand view of complex, beautiful and heartbreaking cultural experiences unfolding in our own backyards. It’s the book I always hoped to read about Iowa.
Antonia Rivera writes of her own journey across the border at age six, living in an undocumented-immigrant commune of seasonal agricultural workers in Anaheim throughout her childhood, moving to Iowa as a young adult, and fighting for DACA and immigration reform.
Ajla Disdaravic writes of being a young Bosnian girl whose mother soaked her socks in moonshine as a way to ward off illness, intertwined with her thoughts on growing up with parents who escaped genocide and the unlikely community in Iowa where bakeries serve pastries from the homeland.
Hieu Pham explores Vietnamese-American filial debt, writing the story of having her own baby and realizing what we owe our mothers.
The book even gives light to the indigenous people of Iowa, openly highlighting the challenges as Dawson Davenport writes open-heartedly of his childhood on the Meskwaki Settlement, a fall into violence and time in prison, before finally finding redemption.
None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the support of our literary city, Iowa City. Each year we launch our book at the famed indie bookstore, Prairie Lights, usually the day after a Pulitzer Prize winner or graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has come through. The writers and their families come from across the state, often with relatives and babies and the whole family in tow, to celebrate their big moment. We read, we listen, we laugh, we cry, and then we sleep. Then we get up the next morning and drive across the state to the Des Moines Arts Festival and do it all again.
The program and the book have been a triumph in telling a little-known story about Iowa. As someone who grew up in a small Iowa town that was full of diversity and brimming with multicultural influence, it’s a viewpoint I wished to read about for so long. I’ve finally fulfilled my own dream – one where I walk into a bookstore and find a book about the state of Iowa that tells the greater truth about the people who are living here.
This diverse tapestry of people and stories and hardship and triumph that we weave together every day?
This is Iowa.
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