How Unordinary: Sarah Brennan-Newell in Conversation with Nozomi Imanishi

Nozomi Imanishi

Nozomi Imanishi, whose essay "Remains" appeared in the Malahat Review's Spring 2019 Issue #206, discusses the funeral process, grief, and what inspires her to write in her Q&A with Malahat Review volunteer Sarah Brennan-Newell. Read a short excerpt of "Remains" on our website.


Nozomi Imanishi is a writer, cook, and odd-job curator currently living in East Vancouver. She has dabbled in film and theatre, picking up among others Best Short Film in the Sprockets Toronto International Film Festival for Children for her short “Chika’s Bird”. She is also a long time fan of zines, and you can find her zines scattered in shops and libraries in Tokyo and Vancouver. 

I really enjoyed "Remains." I was very interested to read about the rituals of the Japanese funeral process, and the multiple events which coincide with the gradual disassembling of the physical body: "We have seen him in life, then merely flesh, then stripped to his bones and now we are here—where only ash remains."

Did you know at the time that this experience was one you would want to write about, or was writing a way of processing that came to you afterwards? Do you see the writing and editing process as more of a reduction towards the essential, or as a building up process?

Thank you for your insightful questions. I knew I wanted to write about the funeral halfway through the wake. There were so many other details and events that happened that I didn’t include that felt so surreal to me, but were so normal in that particular context and for the people involved. I think I almost had to write about it for an audience that would find it as surreal as I had. It helped me to process what had happened in a way that was safe, still respectful, and hopefully not too heavy but acknowledged how unordinary I’d found it.

The vivid imagery of the ash, and the way you used metaphor throughout gave the piece a poetic feel. Do you prefer to write creative nonfiction on the whole? What do you think creative nonfiction can offer that no other genre can?

I do prefer to write creative nonfiction. It’s funny, I don’t think I’m a very good poet but my writing has often been compared to poetry. Creative nonfiction can offer a fuller truth… There might be details that are omitted, or embellished, but overall the events are told in a way that feels perhaps more honest to the actual events than a straightforward telling of what happened.

Moments of grief can be powerful catalysts for connection. I think your piece very beautifully captures the ways in which they can bring people together, while also exposing moments of isolation inherent to a very individual experience. How do you see the relationship between familial or communal grief, and personal grief? Or do you see it all as one entity? 

I think grief is like a tsunami, it hits you hard at first, and then you get smaller waves that keep coming but you don’t know when they’ll hit, or how big they will be, or really anything at all. I guess if you’re fortunate, you get to grieve with others for a little while and share it, and if you’re not you have to do it on your own. In “Remains,” it was a bit of both so I guess we were fortunate in this particular circumstance. 

I was very struck by the passage where you built a butsudan, an altar to hold cremated remains kept within the house. In what ways do you think traditions surrounding grief shape the way we mourn and the way we think about death?

I loved the traditional drawn-out-ness of the wake and funeral. It was all open casket, we spent time with the corpse—it sounds scary when I use that word, but everything was really well lit, quiet, and respectful. There was so much physical time spent seeing just how dead my uncle was, and then seeing his bones at the end, my God—the whole process was only dedicated time to acknowledge death and say your final words publically or personally to the deceased, maybe put some things to rest. I’ve never experienced that in any other funeral. I thought I might like to have all the people I love have a funeral like this. 

Another thing I noticed throughout the piece was the connection to food, from the funeral feasts to the food displays – even the udon noodles sent by the Fuji Ayako fan club are tied to the loss. While placing a bone inside the urn you describe feeling almost uncomfortably full of food, while at another moment your aunt is unable to eat at all. Can you speak more to what you see as the connection between food and grief? 

I think food is a way we show care in any culture. Western cultures might bring casseroles or start a food train for grieving individuals. It often sits uneaten because grief sometimes closes our mouths, but I think for people surrounding the grieving person there’s sometimes not much else we can offer.

On a broader note, who or what inspires you and your writing? Are you reading anything especially good at the moment? 

My favourite genre, and what inspires me most, is hands down young adult fiction. I’ve never quite outgrown my love for reading as a kid. That said, I’ll read really anything. I probably go through a book a week, anything from sci-fi to westerns to self-help to cook books. I think I'm mostly drawn to young adult fiction because it’s such a specific time in your life when you’re trying to figure things out, a lot of the times poorly, but there’s humour and life in it. I also like how most young adult fiction leans towards embracing people and building them up. There’s so much sadness in life, I’d like my fantasies to be more on the side of hope.


Sarah Brennan-Newell

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