'Crying In H Mart' Explores Michelle Zauner's Relationship With Food, Family & Grief
Michelle Zauner is best known for performing music under the name Japanese Breakfast, but her latest project explores a different side of her.
Raised by a white American father and a Korean mother in the Pacific Northwest, Zauner longed for independence and moved across the country to attend college and try to launch her music career. However, she returned home in her early 20s to help care for her mother through the final, painful months of cancer treatments.
Zauner explores her journey growing apart from and then returning to her mother and the aftermath of her death in her new memoir, Crying In H Mart. While the book explores fraught family relationships, it’s also part food memoir — paying tribute to how Korean food connected Zauner and her mother and helped her heal after her mother’s death.
Zauner says she first started writing about her relationship with Korean food and her mother’s death a year after her passing. Her first essay, Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi, shared the experience of recreating her mother's Korean cooking while she was grieving with the help of a Korean cooking YouTuber named Maangchi.
In 2017 after touring in Korea with her band, Zauner decided to continue writing and her viral New Yorker essay Crying In H Mart soon followed. That essay laid the foundation for her new book of the same name, which dives deeper into Zauner's life of struggling with her identity, fraught family relationships, food, and grief.
Having written two albums, she says writing a book forced her to talk about these issues head on.
“An album has so many fragments of feeling, so kind of impressionistic in a way, there’s so many ways to interpret it. Whereas writing prose is so much more direct, and the responses I’ve gotten so far to the book have been so profoundly moving,” Zauner says.
Describing food came easy to Zauner, engaging every part of the senses to paint a picture for someone who may have never heard of or tried certain Korean dishes.
“This book is in many ways a food memoir and certainly it goes greatly into the joys of food, of sharing food and eating food and creating this sort of line between you and your culture. But it was also interesting to me to explore the ways that food can be really horrific and ugly,” she says.
As Zauner took care of her mother, they both lost a lot of weight. She counted every calorie her mother struggled to eat through cancer treatments to make sure she was getting enough — an experience Zauner describes as a “battlefield."
“It sort of made sense why I kind of dove back into falling in love with food after that experience and why that became so important to me,” she says.
Zauner says the act of writing this book helped her find closure, but the fact that her mother wasn’t someone who survived her battle with cancer still hangs over her.
In releasing the book, she says felt an additional sense of closure. Crying in H Mart debuted at number two on the New York Times’ Best Sellers List which Zauner says was a “We did it, mom” moment. She hopes the book can offer something for both people who have and have not experienced a great loss in their life.
“For those who have experienced loss, I would like them to feel less alone in that experience, and for those who have yet to, I would like them to call their mom and invite them out to lunch,” she says.
Zauner continues to use cooking as a therapeutic experience — from making kimchi to jajangmyeon, a comforting noodle dish in black bean sauce.
“There’s all sorts of things that I do and there are all these kind of little rituals to sort of take the time to remember my mom and think of her fondly,” she says.
Boswell Books will be hosting a virtual event with Michelle Zauner at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 4.