In 2016, Oregon-raised Michelle Zauner released her first album under the alias Japanese Breakfast, “Psychopomp.” That same year, she won an essay contest in Glamour. The title of the essay, “Love, Loss, and Kimchi,” hints at some of the ways Zauner coped with profound grief: food, and by channeling creativity — two passions she shared with her mother, who passed away two years prior.
Zauner’s new memoir, “Crying in H Mart,” grew from that essay, and the 2018 New Yorker article that shares the book’s name. In the memoir, Zauner chronicles the loss of her mother, who died from cancer when the author was in her early 20s.
But to simply call it a grief memoir flattens what is truly a multidimensional work. This story is a nuanced portrayal of a young person grappling with what it means to embody familial and cultural histories, to be fueled by creative pursuits, to examine complex relationships with place, and to endure the acute pain of losing a parent just on the other side of a tumultuous adolescence.
“Her memory was the archive of my existence,” Zauner says of her mother over Zoom on a recent spring afternoon. “This book is very much an ode to my mother.”
Born in Seoul, South Korea, to a Korean mother and a white father, Zauner moved to Eugene, Oregon, at 9 months old, where she was raised in a house in the woods outside the city. (She currently lives in Philadelphia.) Through regular visits to Korea with her mother, and through their shared love of food, Zauner connected deeply with her Korean family (and her mother) despite a limited knowledge of the Korean language.
Shortly after the death of an aunt from cancer, Zauner’s mother is diagnosed, too. As food moves from joyful point of connection to cold and clinical means of survival, Zauner faces the overwhelming onslaught of changes to family life as her mother takes on the slow work of living while dying.
Through the writing process, Zauner says, she “was shifting the lens and documenting her, re-creating a kind of archive of this moment. All the little stuff that you don’t think is going to be meaningful … you can turn it all into something really meaningful. The type of art that I’m particularly interested in is rooted in taking a kind of magnifying glass to the ordinary.”
Zauner counts Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” among her creative influences: “I like this idea of investigating your parent after they’ve died and finding these clues that really make sense of things in your life.” Finding significance in the details of memory, objects and sensory experiences like eating, Zauner renders the essential relationship she shared with her mother.
“I was always a very courageous person,” she says of her child self. “So my mom was very impressed. I remember her being very impressed by my palate and my love and appreciation of food. I think it really made her feel like I was hers.”
Growing up in Eugene, Zauner was drawn to music, and followed her artistic interests. Her mother was also creative, with cooking and ceramics. But like many teenagers, Zauner was not always on the best terms with her mother.
“Hers was tougher than tough love,” Zauner writes in the book. “It was brutal, industrial-strength. A sinewy love that never gave way to an inch of weakness. It was a love that saw what was best for you ten steps ahead, and didn’t care if it hurt like hell in the meantime.” When she was diagnosed, Zauner says, “My mom and I were just beginning to enjoy a really wonderful relationship with one another.” But, she continues, “there is no perfect moment for someone to die in your life.”
“Crying in H Mart,” Zauner says, is “about a search for belonging, which I guess is very tied to a feeling of home. I’ve never really felt like I quite belong as an American in some ways. And I definitely don’t feel like I belong as a Korean person in Korea.
“What I staked out for myself is that I feel more like an artist than I do a Korean person or an American.”
The feeling of belonging, of home, was acute for her mother, too: “Growing up, I didn’t realize how hard it must have been for her sometimes. Her excitement about Korean food connected her to her family; it was a really loaded thing. I think that she really didn’t let on how homesick she might have felt at times.”
Zauner, whose relationships with her Korean family have changed over time with the loss of her grandmother, aunt and then her mother, also explores the nuances of communication in her work across mediums — music and prose. “I think that’s a big part of being an artist,” she says. “It’s like this obsession with people understanding you. That’s a big part of what drives my work in general. It’s like I am afraid of being misunderstood, and want to be understood as a person.”
In this moment of acute collective grief, a memoir that so tenderly touches the meaning of loss feels perhaps even more prescient than usual, but of course grief abounds all the time.
“For a while after my mom had gone,” Zauner says, “that’s all I wanted to read. I wanted to know other people were going through that.” There’s a lot to be said for this kind of comfort, though the book stands alone regardless of the societal context it is released into. There is no right way to grieve, and it certainly isn’t a prerequisite for great art. Zauner’s next project, an album called “Jubilee” due out from Dead Oceans on June 4, is explicitly about joy.
“I felt ready to write something that was just really different and lighter,” Zauner says. On how she feels about releasing two major creative projects in such close proximity, she notes, “It feels surreal. … It feels simultaneously like I’m on the precipice of something quite large, but also I’m not sure [what to expect].”
And her mom is never far from her creative pursuits.
“I would have loved my mother to have seen me become successful as an artist on my terms,” Zauner says. “Part of it is very heartbreaking, and part of it is just sweet to think about.”
Indeed, the art Zauner has made and continues to make on her own terms is bitter, salty, sour and sweet; “Crying in H Mart” is a warm and wholehearted work of literature, an honest and detailed account of grief over time, studded with moments of hope, humor, beauty, and clear-eyed observation. It is not to be missed.