I have felt an extraordinary kinship with Michelle Zauner ever since I first listened to her music. (She performs under the alias Japanese Breakfast.) I saw her perform with Jay Som in San José, California, while I was in college. She was the first mixed-Asian woman I’d ever seen in concert, and she killed it on stage, playing banger after banger and even belting the saxophone solo to “Machinist” (2017). She was a fellow halfie who strove to make beautiful things out of a spiritual need to create. She made me feel as if I could create something beautiful one day, too.
Michelle Zauner has brought her masterful songwriting skills to bear in the delicate prose of her memoir, the story of her artistic coming of age and a portrait of her mother’s extraordinary life and early death due to cancer. She deftly braids the story of her mother Chongmi’s life with her own. At points, their narratives rhyme with each other: Chongmi, once the caregiver, becomes the one taken care of; Chongmi’s hair falls out in the shower after a round of chemotherapy, and Michelle’s hair begins to fall out from stress; they both cry out that primal word — umma — when their mothers pass away.
The memoir is woven with motifs of an almost musical nature that shift us from the present to the past and back again. Michelle and her mother’s love of food is the most prominent of these motifs — “an unspoken language between us,” she calls it, that “had come to symbolize our return to each other, our bonding, our common ground.” Food bridges the distance between the city where her mother grew up, Seoul, South Korea, and the city where Michelle grew up, Eugene, Oregon. In one of my favorite scenes, Michelle and her mother are jet-lagged and hungry after arriving in Seoul, unable to sleep with their stomachs groaning. No longer in Oregon but not yet in sync with Korea, they poke around her halmoni’s refrigerator:
Standing at the counter, we’d open every Tupperware container full of homemade banchan, and snack together in the blue dark of the humid kitchen. Sweet braised black soybeans, crispy yellow sprouts with scallion and sesame oil, and tart, juicy cucumber kimchi were shoveled into our mouths behind spoonfuls of warm, lavender kong bap straight from the open rice cooker. We’d giggle and shush each other as we ate ganjang gejang with our fingers, sucking salty, rich, custardy raw crab from its shell, prodding the meat from its crevices with our tongues, licking our soy sauce–stained fingers. Between chews of a wilted perilla leaf, my mother would say, “This is how I know you’re a true Korean.”
Michelle and her mother float in the ethereal space between worlds — an experience that hits me so hard with its familiarity — and they do it together, gorging on the same containers of food. Throughout Crying in H Mart, Zauner never italicizes Korean words, rejecting otherizing and thus creating a world that feels true to a childhood in which a mix of Korean and English words ricocheted between family members during the same conversation. When I read these scenes, I am instantly brought back to my yee ma’s house, begging my mother for English translations when I couldn’t keep up with the Cantonese.
Much like the guitar riff that rings out in her song “Everybody Wants to Love You” (2016), the motifs braided into Zauner’s memoir carry us through both the buoyant and sorrowful chapters, helping us make sense of how the pieces fit together. A compelling and authentic story of grief has to have moments of joy to give it meaning, to give purpose to the life of the person who died. Zauner’s narrative craft shows us what is at stake: avoiding the urge to “co-opt something so vulnerable and personal and tragic for a creative artifact” and instead faithfully documenting the greatest and most influential person in her life. She tearfully sifts through the endless photos her mother took of her as a little girl, realizing how “cyclical and bittersweet” it was “for a child to retrace the image of their mother. For a subject to turn back to document their archivist.” In giving us her own archival work in the form of a memoir, she understands that to preserve her mother is to preserve a part of herself.
Writing this portrait is just one of the many acts of love and care that Zauner performs for her mother. Throughout Chongmi’s sickness, Michelle dutifully looks after her — making cream soups and sweet tomato juices for her, grinding and sprinkling painkillers over her ice cream cones, and escorting her to one medical appointment after another. “I felt we could go on like this for years,” Zauner writes, “just fixing her.” When her mother decides to stop treatment after two rounds of chemotherapy, Zauner has to shift focus: she has to learn how to care for someone whose fate she cannot change.
I have not gone through anything close to Zauner’s caregiving experience, but Zauner’s tender portrait resonated intensely with the work I do teaching art to people with dementia. Both cancer and dementia can be terminal, and as the disease progresses, the people affected by them sometimes become less recognizable to their loved ones. Given the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, I strive to provide my students with attention, love, and art more than ever. My students remind me of my own po po, my maternal grandmother, the woman who picked me up from school every day as a child, who lived with dementia for years until it ultimately led to her death. Even when she struggled to remember or speak, we could still share daily joys together, like tossing bubbles of sweet gai dan jai waffles from the street carts into our mouths and walking through Manhattan’s Columbus Park while gnawing on Jung’s dried pork jerky.
I aim to make joy the center of my teaching, and I feel that joy is also at the heart of Crying in H Mart. (In fact, Zauner has announced that joy is the focus of her forthcoming album, Jubilee.) Rather than trying to “fix” her mother’s illness, she instead shifts to sharing moments of joy and pure love with her — even hastily planning her own wedding so that they can choose the flowers and the dress together. In remembering these moments and relating them to us, Zauner is able briefly to transcend time — the narrator is grounded in an infinite present that gives her mother a kind of immortality.
I had thought fermentation was controlled death. Left alone, a head of cabbage molds and decomposes. It becomes rotten, inedible. But when brined and stored, the course of its decay is altered. Sugars are broken down to produce lactic acid, which protects it from spoiling. Carbon dioxide is released and the brine acidifies. It ages. Its color and texture transmute. Its flavor becomes tarter, more pungent. It exists in time and transforms. So it is not quite controlled death, because it enjoys a new life altogether.
The memories I had stored, I could not let fester. Could not let trauma infiltrate and spread, to spoil and render them useless. They were moments to be tended. The culture we shared was active, effervescent in my gut and in my genes, and I had to seize it, foster it so it did not die in me. So that I could pass it on someday. The lessons she imparted, the proof of her life lived on in me, in my every move and deed. I was what she left behind. If I could not be with my mother, I would be her.
Crying in H Mart carries on the legacy of Michelle Zauner’s mother, and in doing so achieves what the greatest works of creative nonfiction strive to do: the writer transforms the wreckage, and is herself transformed in the process.
Shannon Daniels is a writer and educator from New York City. She currently works at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, facilitating and leading programs for visitors with dementia and their care partners.