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“The big center crop is known as makua,” Miki’ala Pua’a-Freitas, the owner of a taro farm in Hawaii, told me. Makua is a term for “parent” in Hawaiian culture. “All the offshoots, those are called keikis, and, you know, we’re all offshoots of our parents,” she said.
I knew taro was a sweet, earthy root vegetable popular in boba drinks and desserts. But I had to listen closely to keep up with Ms. Freitas, who was describing its sacred value to Hawaiians.
It was mid September, and speaking with Ms. Freitas was one of my first in-depth interviews as a reporter on the Styles desk. As part of The New York Times embed program, I had left my role as a Times news assistant for a short time to dive into Styles and its world of fashion reviews, celebrity profiles, taboo topics and fascinating facets of society. The goal of the embed program was to learn how to be a great reporter by sharpening my interview skills, storytelling techniques and Times style and knowledge over the next three months.
So when Ethan Hauser, a senior staff editor on the desk and my mentor in the program, asked me if I’d like to help with a series on different rituals in America and the people who practice them, I was delighted to contribute.
The digital project, which was published online last month, gives readers a look at practices such as Ms. Freitas’s taro harvest in Hawaii, ocher mining in Utah and a church service at a monastery in New Mexico. Ethan described the project as a way to document rituals across a country that had developed strange new ones, like masks and social distancing, during the pandemic: Photojournalists for The Times photographed 12 of them, and reporters conducted interviews, then wrote short vignettes to accompany the pictures.
I was assigned to interview and write about several people including Christian McGee, who proudly takes part in a Cajun Mardi Gras run in Louisiana that dates to the 19th century; Adonia Lee, a woodworker in Washington who infuses traditional elements of her Makah heritage with modern materials and techniques; and Alice Liu, the second-generation owner of a shop in Manhattan’s Chinatown that sells traditional altars used for ancestral and god worship.
Before joining The Times as a news assistant, I had worked as a local reporter in San Diego, my hometown. I’d written a few articles for The Times while working as an assistant, so I knew I needed to connect with my subjects, even though it wasn’t my full-time job. I needed to unlock the emotions they felt while taking part in their rituals, and to grasp the deeper meaning the ritual holds for their families or cultures. The assignment also meant asking about the small details, like the names of pets or children, and being honest about when parts of a ritual were beyond my understanding.
A daunting task awaited once the interview was over, and I had to sit at my computer and figure out a way to condense an hour of conversation into a few hundred words.
The first two drafts I wrote were nearly 1,000 words, well over the suggested word count of 300, as I tried to squeeze in every detail. I felt like leaving anything out would be an injustice to those I’d interviewed.
But over the course of the project, I developed a sharper sense of what mattered most for my subjects and for readers. Certain details matter: To work with ocher, an earth pigment, Elpitha Tsoutsounakis, a professor of design in Utah, mixes it with a binder before grinding, swatching and cataloging. I also marked the moments during interviews that produced a flutter in my stomach — a feeling of excitement when a source’s passion for what they do radiated through the phone. These moments, whether they ended up as direct quotes or small descriptive details, were what brought the article to life.
Since this reporting project, I have started to see rituals as the small ways that we all try to produce work or design practices that will leave a mark on this world after we leave it. I began to think that the practice of documenting peoples’ stories might be a ritual, too.