With so much suffering, how do writers find their human focus?

A conversation with The Washington Post’s John Woodrow Cox about his story “They depended on their parents for everything. Then the virus took both.”

July 27, 2020

One of the challenges of covering the pandemic is the way in which deaths become routine. What might have been a dramatic story of a family’s grief six months ago can lose its distinctive features, blurred against so much loss and so much grief.

COVID-19 may be a new virus, but this challenge for writers is an old one. Ernie Pyle faced it in World War II: Which soldiers would he write about? John Hersey faced it in covering the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima: Which survivors could best tell the story? Hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, tsunamis, and, yes, pandemics all create orphans.

John Woodrow Cox faced this challenge for The Washington Post. I’ve followed his career since his days as a young writer in St. Petersburg. He showed early on a desire as a reporter not just to dispense information, but to tell stories. His recent story for the Post has attracted lots of attention, and rightly so.

Here’s the headline and sub-headline:

They depended on their parents for everything. Then the virus took both.

Now the Ismael children — 13, 18 and 20 — are struggling to cope with grief, but also with how to keep a car running, pay bills, be a family

Here’s a link to the entire story. It’s long and worth the journey.

I interviewed John Woodrow Cox about how he created this narrative. You will find our conversation after the story’s opening paragraphs below. The story is out of Sterling Heights, Michigan:

She was tired of wearing black, but the teenager knew she had to, at least for one more day. So after Nadeen Ismael swept the floors and arranged the couch pillows just the way her parents liked them, she returned to their bedroom. Behind the door, Nadeen, 18, reached up for her mother’s favorite sweater, still hanging next to the leather jacket and Levi’s jeans her father left there after his last day at work three months earlier.

Across the hall, her sister, Nanssy, 13, put on the black shirt adorned with a sequined gold star that their mom, Nada Naisan, had been given as a teenager in Iraq. In another bedroom, the girls’ brother, Nash, 20, pulled on black socks, pants, shoes and a button-down, all gifts from his mother, who did so much of his shopping that he wasn’t sure what sizes he wore.

Their house was quiet that morning in mid-June, as it seemed to be almost all the time now. Nada wasn’t frying omelets in the kitchen next to the “BLESS OUR HOME” sign, insisting that her two oldest children sit and eat and talk with her. Their dad, Nameer Ayram, wasn’t crooning the made-up song in Chaldean about Nanssy that always made her laugh. “Bobbit baba,” he most liked to call her — “Daddy’s girl.”

All dressed, Nash walked to the small bedroom his sisters shared.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“Ready,” Nadeen responded.

“Let’s go,” said her brother, who hoped that this day would mark the end of the hardest time in their lives and not the start of something harder.

After reading the story, I sent John questions via email. I found his responses both compelling and useful. They have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Roy Peter Clark: John, the great story editor Jan Winburn talks about “casting” a narrative. There may be lots of characters who deserve attention for a story. The best writers select their lead characters carefully, often because those characters have so much at stake. With millions of people affected by the pandemic, why this family?

John Woodrow Cox: This story was the second in a series I’m producing this year on how the pandemic is impacting children in America, and I knew from the start that I wanted to write about a kid who lost both parents to the virus. I hadn’t seen that story told, but with so many people dying every day, we knew that children would inevitably be orphaned.

I read about the Ismael siblings in a local news story and was immediately struck by their plight: three children who had escaped danger in Iraq only to see their mom and dad die 20 days apart, leaving the kids, essentially, alone. The stakes don’t get much higher. I knew little else about them when they agreed to let me come to Michigan (about a month after I’d first contacted a family friend), but I felt certain that they had a compelling story to share.

RPC: The famous novelist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that to create a good fictional story, you have to take a sympathetic character and spend 300 pages doing terrible things to them “to see what they are made of.” So many terrible things happen to this family. How did you manage that suffering without creating a sense of hopelessness?

JWC: I’ve written almost exclusively about trauma for the past several years, but even by my standards, this one was dark. It’s always hard to balance avoiding exploitation with zooming the camera all the way in to show readers the truth, however brutal. As you’ve written, restraint — selecting one agonizing detail to make a point rather than three or four — is important, and I’m fortunate that my editor, Lynda Robinson, has such a superb sense of tone, always knowing when to pull back.

It helped, too, that what Nanssy, Nadeen and Nash are made of is something quite extraordinary. They hadn’t given up, despite having every reason to, and that allowed me to convey some bits of hope amid their suffering. I remain in awe of them.

RPC: I am a lifelong Catholic, but had never heard of the Chaldean Catholics from Iraq. As I read your story, they seemed to represent a minority within a minority: Catholics from a Muslim country, immigrants at a time when immigration is so charged. I am curious as to how their ethnic, religious and legal status played into the story you wanted to tell.

JWC: I’ll admit, I’d never heard of Chaldean Catholics either. I read a lot about their history and talked to a colleague who had covered Iraq before I learned, to my amazement, that the photographer we already wanted to shoot the story, Salwan Georges, was also Chaldean. He and I didn’t overlap up there, but his insight was a huge help.

Who the Ismaels are clearly deepened the tragedy. They had been born into a world of hardship and persecution, and just as this family of refugees was nearing the “better future” their mom always talked about, COVID destroyed it. To a large degree, the nuances of their culture — how Chaldean parents shield their children from the burdens of adulthood, even after they become adults — informed the narrative’s focus.

The story was about loss, but not just of beloved parents. These were also the people who Nanssy, Nadeen and Nash relied on for everything. How would the kids make it without them?

RPC: You seem to be walking in the footsteps of special feature writers who migrated from the newspaper in St. Pete to the Washington Post. I am thinking about David Finkel and Anne Hull, just to name the most prominent. David and Anne were always preaching the value of eyewitness reporting. Can you describe what you were able to see with your own eyes and what scenes had to be recreated to fill the story?

JWC: Well, first, I feel unworthy to be compared in any way to David and Anne, two writers whose work I’ve admired and envied since college. But yes, I strive as much as possible to immerse with my subjects, an approach to reporting that the virus has made much trickier.

From behind a KN95, I observed about half of what appears in the story and reconstructed the rest. The scenes in the first and last sections, which take place on the same day, were witnessed firsthand, as was most of the fourth, including that crushing moment in the kitchen when they argue about their bird, Coocoo.

I spent about a week with the Ismaels and came back with well more than 20 hours of audio (some from scene, some from interviews). I had long conversations with all of them individually and as a group. They were remarkably open — and patient. We spent nearly six hours one evening going through the day-by-day ticktock of the two months from when their dad came home sick in March to his funeral in May.

Reconstruction is always hard, but in this case, it helped that Nash had texted with his boss from the start, creating a sort of real-time journal. He gave me access to their entire conversation. Thousands of messages. Those allowed me to map out times and dates and to take readers into Nash’s mind in a way I never could have if I was relying entirely on his memory.

RPC: I know some writers who just want to tell stories they find compelling. Others write with a sense of purpose about what they hope the story will accomplish. What do you hope that readers will take away from this particular story about a single family suffering through a global pandemic?

JWC: I thought a lot while I reported this story about my (yet-to-be-published) book on gun violence. It focuses on kids who didn’t get shot, because I want readers to understand that the impact of that crisis extends well beyond the wounded and the dead. I hoped this story would do the same.

Every day, we see these bleak charts tracking COVID’s spread pop up on our TVs and computers, but the death toll from this virus represents only a fraction of the suffering, especially for children.

No dataset can capture what Nanssy, Nadeen and Nash have endured.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at roypc@poynter.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.

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