I was first introduced to Michelle Zauner when friends of mine at Yellow K Records picked up her debut album, Psychopomp, under her moniker Japanese Breakfast. In the music video for her debut single, “Everyone Wants to Love You,” Zauner wears her recently deceased mother’s hanbok (a traditional Korean wedding dress) while she shotguns beers, plays billiards at a dive bar, and shreds on the hood of an eighteen-wheeler. I was instantly drawn to the blend of DIY, discopop, and punk rock elements of the song and the video, which is both super silly and deeply rooted in seriousness.
Since then, I’ve followed Zauner’s music career through the three well received albums that have earned her the indie-famous status of “Jimmy Fallon big.” But it wasn’t until she published her personal essay “Crying in H Mart” in the New Yorker that I felt a serendipitous collision of my literary interests, my little indie music cred, and my own fondness for the Asian supermarket H Mart, where my partner and I go probably once a week to share a deluxe-sized jjajangmyeon for, like, eleven bucks. In her essay, Zauner reflects on her Korean American identity and the loss of her mother while sitting in the H Mart food court. Now, in her memoir of the same title, she explores her upbringing in Eugene, Oregon, the period during her mother’s cancer diagnosis, and the aftermath of her mother’s eventual death.
Despite the fact that she’s a mainstay touring indie-rock musician, let’s dispel the presumption right away that this book is a rock-and-roll autobiography. In addition to being a student of creative writing, Zauner has also hosted a five-part video series for Munchies on the diaspora of food in America, directed a music video for the band Charly Bliss, and even made her own classic JRPG video game (which of course I’ve played and beaten). So, this is not a rock-star-gets-book-deal situation, but a thoughtful, well-crafted piece of artwork that we should expect from a renaissance person.
In Crying in H Mart, Zauner stays true to the genre of memoir, focusing predominantly on the themes of her New Yorker piece—her relationship with her mother, death, and her Korean American identity—and resists using her book as a platform to highlight her successful music career and various other projects. When she dedicates this book “for 엄마,” her mother, she means it.
The first several chapters of Crying in H Mart focus on Zauner’s childhood and, for the most part, follow a chronological timeline as we see her through her rebellious teenage years and up to her mother’s cancer diagnosis in her early twenties. A large portion of the memoir deals with Zauner’s reconciliation with her mother during that time, and when the treatments fail to be effective, her reconciliation with the fact that her mother is going to die.
This is not the first book many of us have read about early childhood, the illness of a loved one, and loss. I expected that we would get to see a familiar subject through a unique but mostly relatable perspective, with the engine—or what keeps the reader interested—being Zauner’s voice, her humility, and her ability to reflect on universal themes of growing up in a concise and clear way. Most of that is true, but also, like… shit gets wild. As a rule, memoirs do not have to be dramatic (or occasionally, traumatic) to be effective, but there are some stories in this book; from tales of punk-rock basements to a violent spat with her mother, the events in this book depict much more than a suburban slice of life. The relatable teenage angst is there, but Zauner’s memoir is also filled with anecdotes like seeing Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O deepthroating a mic on stage for the first time, or harboring the secret of her father’s infidelity.
And, unlike many narratives around loss, Zauner does not present her mother as some type of hero, nor does she try to put her on a pedestal. Not only does she present the flaws (particularly the emotional and occasionally physical abuse her mother inflicts when Zauner is young), she is able to capture these blemishes in a way that still feels like love, mostly by incorporating the lessons of her own mother’s bluntness into her own prose. In the title chapter, Zauner conjures her mother while sitting in an H Mart and eavesdropping on an adjacent mother who is nagging her son:
He must be in his early twenties, but his mother is still instructing him on how to eat, just like my mom used to. “Dip the onion in the paste.” “Don’t add too much gochujang or it’ll be too salty.” “Why aren’t you eating the mungbeans?” Some days, the constant nagging would annoy me. Woman, let me eat in peace! But, most days, I know it was the ultimate display of a Korean woman’s tenderness, and I cherished that love. A love I’d do anything to get back.
In this instance, her mother’s nagging is a way to educate her, but also protect her and maybe reinforce the Koreanness in her that Zauner will continue to struggle with throughout her childhood. I feel this, too, when I go to H Mart with my Vietnamese American boyfriend. As we sit in the food court, he scolds me for pouring some of my tonkatsu sauce over the rice. “Asians don’t do that,” he tells me the moment the thick, dark sauce touches white, which is annoying, because I know and just wanted some damn tonkatsu sauce with my rice, but I also understand that this is his way of being overprotective, our mere presence as a gay, interracial couple already cause for scrutiny, and I don’t need the additional judgment of not knowing how to eat my rice.
The way Zauner talks about her mother’s love reminds me of something Jonathan Van Ness does in an episode of Queer Eye, when the gang is in Japan. In one episode, Van Ness (who’s typically on it) tries to encourage a mother to say “I love you” more often to her daughter, to the clear amazement (and perhaps discomfort) of both mother and daughter. It demonstrates the Western perception that fails to differentiate acts of love from the performance of love. The way Zauner presents her mother, blunt and blemished, suggests that the rifts and disagreements between them for much of Zauner’s childhood were the result of her mother perhaps loving her too hard. Throughout the memoir, she investigates those seemingly minute acts of love that permeated her childhood in place of the performance of love. “There was no one in the world that was ever as critical or could make me feel as hideous as my mother,” Zauner writes, “but there was no one, not even [my partner], who ever made me feel as beautiful.” Zauner’s memoir is not a performance, but an act of love, including all the dirty little bits that come with it.
And what is the predominant act of love in this book? Food. “No matter how critical or cruel she could seem—constantly pushing me to meet her intractable expectations—I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she packed and the meals she prepared for me just the way I liked them,” Zauner writes. Zauner likewise uses food to communicate with her mother: trying to cheer her up during chemo with the dishes she likes, or learning how to make Korean staples as the ultimate sign of commitment to helping her mother through her diagnosis. And when these attempts are rejected—either due to legitimate health reasons or because of a nosy usurping family friend who comes to help but outstays her welcome—these rejections not only feel to Zauner like a rejection of her love, but also, in a way, her heritage.
The memoir exists somewhat adjacent to what we might bucket as “food writing.” The immediate parallel is MFK Fisher; like Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, each chapter of Crying in H Mart features a dish (or dishes) that Zauner builds her narrative around, from the Korean lunch she and her mother share before her mother tells her she wishes Zauner would give up on her musical aspirations to the multi-course meal she shares with her somewhat estranged father during a grief holiday in Vietnam to learning to make kimchi as a form of therapy.
What keeps this from becoming a gimmick? Partly it’s that Zauner establishes early in the memoir that food is a method of communication between her and her mother. It feels very organic and not at all forced for Zauner to shift into careful descriptions of her mother’s dishes, and to use recipes as a device to communicate with us, the reader. I think about Louise Erdrich’s pregnancy memoir, The Blue Jay’s Dance, in which she occasionally and unapologetically drops seven or so pages of recipes that feature anise and fennel with absolutely no commentary or lyricism, perhaps as a way of saying, I am suffering these cravings for licorice, and now you, reader, must suffer them with me. Zauner doesn’t barrage us nearly as much with her food writing, but the way she works through recipes from scratch, or includes paragraphs dedicated to the history and composition of certain dishes, feels deeply personal, either conjuring a time and a place or capturing the in-betweenness of the Asian-American experience.
Let me end this review with a disclaimer, followed by a bit of blatant gushing. Though I’m a huge fan of Zauner’s many projects, I do not typically choose to read narrative memoirs, particularly ones about grief, and particularly not during a year where I’m basically already sad all the time anyways due to **gestures around.** But, I finished this memoir in about two and a half sittings, something I never do. I found the occasional lyricism and the cadences in these well-paced chapters to be, dare I say, a perfect snack for a book that made me cry several times. Picture Chihiro in Spirited Away sobbing heavy tears into delicious-looking onigiri. The memoir is definitely sad, but every time I hit white space I knew I needed to push on, perhaps because of Zauner’s ability to expertly package metaphor in these dishes she clings to in order to understand her mother, her grief, and her identity. Perhaps too, it’s because, as when Zauner goes to the Korean spa following her mother’s death for a full-body scrub, reading Crying in H Mart has helped me feel pounds lighter during a heavy year.
“Food is the best way to communicate something that is uncomfortable,” says chef JJ Johnson during his interview with Zauner. Zauner uses food as a tool to communicate the topics we often shy away from—grief, estrangement, and even the occasional shame of growing away from that grief. As a writer, Zauner knows how to use her love of food as an asset to her growth and toward her art—and, as a reader, I’m coming back for seconds.