“I was so terrified and devastated when I finished the book,” says Michelle Zauner, who also performs music under the moniker Japanese Breakfast. This week, Zauner released her first book, “Crying in H Mart,” a memoir about losing her mother to cancer and navigating grief. After turning in the final edits to her editor, Zauner was worried that she hadn’t done her mother’s story justice.
The book took root from a 2016 essay Zauner wrote for Glamour, “Love, Loss and Kimchi,” which won the magazine’s 11th essay content. The New Yorker approached her in 2018, and she submitted the first (and titular) chapter of her book, “Crying in H Mart,” which went viral (and gave her a financial boost and validation).
“Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart,” Zauner writes in the book’s opening sentence, before walking readers through the sensory landscape of the Korean American supermarket chain that stocks Asian culinary items. Zauner uses food as a thematic vehicle throughout the book, from her childhood in Eugene, Ore., to caring for her mother after a cancer diagnosis, and then navigating grief and connecting with her South Korean heritage. Specific dishes anchor memories in the book, such as eating banchan in her South Korean grandmother’s apartment in Seoul or learning to cook kimchi through YouTube.
“It was a lot of the food leading me back to the memory,” says the 32-year-old creative, adding that she found delight in writing the childhood sections of the book. “It was wonderful to revel in these memories of my childhood that I haven’t spent a lot of time with, and I got to relive.”
The middle section of the book, which goes into the horrors of a body in decline, proved the hardest to revisit. “I wasn’t sure if it was my right to tell that; this is very private and very ugly,” Zauner says. “Ultimately, I felt like I had to try and write it and that, as an artist, an important part of it is sharing that kind of stuff. It was something that I felt angry at the world for not sharing, and I felt like I had to really go there for other people to understand the gravity of that experience.”
While her first two albums have been an outlet for similar themes around grief and loss, “Crying in H Mart” meant that she had to navigate the subject in a less oblique manner.
“In music, I feel like you can hide more because there’s this sonic nature that’s poetic and masks a lot of what’s going on in the lyrics,” she says. “Writing music is so rooted in fragments of feeling — songs have maybe less than a hundred words that you can work with, and so a lot of it is up for interpretation and impressionistic,” she adds. “When you’re writing nonfiction and prose, you have to be very clear of what’s going on, and you have to have a through line that guides someone step-by-step.”
The book ends as Zauner’s music career is taking off, during the final leg of her first album tour. The tour concludes in Seoul with a show attended by her aunt and uncle. “It was a difficult thing to figure out how to end because no one will believe you and it’s not realistic that it’s this happy ending and I’ve conquered grief through Korean cooking,” she says. “It’s this thing that you live with forever, and it has to end in this bittersweet way.”
She’s been surprised to discover what elements of her story readers latch onto and connect with, whether it’s the experience of being an only child, being raised “in the woods” or having a mother that was also obsessed with QVC. When writing the book, Zauner imagined a reader like herself. More specifically, someone like herself sharing the book with their mother.
“And her saying, ‘I hope that when I die you write something like that about me’ or ‘This girl loves her mother. And I hope that you feel that way about me also’ or ‘See, I told you to appreciate me,’” Zauner says. “I can see an immigrant parent feeling that way. That’s like the most intriguing reader to me.”
This summer, Zauner will release her next album as Japanese Breakfast (which she finished before the pandemic) and will be going on tour. Before that, she’ll embark on a Zoom book tour, which includes conversations with writers and creatives like Bowen Yang, Jia Toledano and Chanel Miller; on April 23 she is joining South Korean chef Maangchi (who appears in the book via YouTube cooking videos) for a discussion of the book and cooking demo of sagwa-ssamjang (apple dipping sauce).
Zauner’s last two records were primarily about grief and her mom’s passing. Her new album, titled “Jubilee,” takes her story in a new direction and is rooted in an exploration of joy. “I feel like I said all I needed to say about [grief],” she says. “And I was able to close the book on it.”
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