Zauner’s relationship with her mother was fraught. A Korean immigrant with an American husband in the outskirts of Eugene, Oregon, Zauner’s mother did not have the same creative dreams for her daughter and their different upbringings often clashed. Many teens have rough relationships with their parents, of course, but most have the time to grow, mature, and reevaluate their adolescent conflicts, such as how different cultural upbringings may have intersected with general personality differences, combined with teen rebellion. Zauner, only 25, had little time to process these things during her mother’s lifetime. Thus, she found herself dealing not just with the loss of her mother, but also a struggle to understand where she would fit in as a biracial daughter without the nurturing guidance of a mother to help her understand half of her heritage.
Crying in H Mart, Zauner’s new memoir, released on April 20, delves into her relationship with her mother through the love of the Korean foods that connected them. It examines how Zauner carried on her bond with her mother and her South Korean roots by learning to cook the dishes they both loved, and by using her grief to inspire her increasingly successful creative life.
Expanding her talents toward the writing world, Zauner won Glamour Magazine’s 2016 essay contest, and her essay, also titled “Crying in H Mart,” was published in The New Yorker in 2018. Crying in H Mart is this productive artist’s debut book.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
KATIE SCHWARZ: You’ve now written both albums and a memoir about grief. The processes must be so different regarding what you can do with music versus creative nonfiction and vice versa. What were the different experiences writing music versus writing a memoir when it came to processing grief?
MICHELLE ZAUNER: Before I wrote my first album for Japanese Breakfast, I had written and recorded two albums before with my band, Little Big League, and I just felt like it was something that I already knew I could do — I had taken on that kind of big project before, so it was more intuitive and looser. In terms of writing the book, I’d never written nonfiction before, really. Well, I guess I’d written some essays, but I had never written a book and it was definitely a far more intimidating, much longer, and less intuitive process.
Also music is a little like poetry, it leaves a lot open.
You are literally writing in fragments.
I loved this idea of your mother saying keep 10 percent for yourself. And I know a book is a snapshot, so you can’t put everything in, but you were very honest in this book, honest about the complicated relationship with your mother and your father, as well as about their complicated relationship. How important was it for you to be honest and include those elements in your book?
I will say that I think that that’s something that music and memoir have that are similar — whether or not you want people to, they infuse a musicians’ life with their work far more than any other medium besides, obviously, memoir.
But I’ve become very comfortable writing very honestly about my life, and in some ways it’s become unsatisfying to me to not have part of that in my art, not be learning something about myself and sort of investigating life in that way. But there were some things that I was very nervous about, and it took writing and rewriting and trying things out and taking them away to decide exactly how I wanted to share these details. I was less worried about myself. I’m a pretty natural, open-book type of person. But I did have some fear about my Korean family because that culture in general is a bit more private. I did have this fear that I was going to be shaming my mother’s memory in some way. But then there’s the selfishness of being an artist and understanding that that’s part of your role. It’s important to provide all the details in order for things to make sense.
One thing that impressed me most about the book was your complicated relationship with grief and identity. The idea of grieving both a future with your mother but also grieving what maybe felt like a lost childhood relationship. You also show identity being relative. When your mom is standing next to you, people look at you in a very particular way and you feel a very particular way as a result, and then at the end without your mother, you’re examined differently as an individual and also feel differently. How did you come into the book understanding identity and grief, and did that change through the process of writing it?
I think that it changed a lot. I very much went into the book as an explorer. I was really looking forward to the first third of the book, and sort of excavating the more joyful memories that I had of my mother because for a long time it was very difficult for me to have a memory of my mother that wasn’t buried by the trauma of caretaking and her health deteriorating. And a lot of the reason is because I moved to another coast when I was 18 and the most concentrated period of time I spent with my mother in five years was the six-month period I spent with her as a caretaker. So I felt so much shame and sadness that when I would have a memory or I would dream about my mother, she was always sick. I wanted to go through the process of uncovering these really beautiful parts of my childhood that had kind of been overshadowed by later moments in our lives. So I was really looking forward to that.
The second part of the book was an extremely painful process, trying to get through that. But yeah, in the process of doing it, I feel like the question I don’t even know if I wanted to answer was, Why did I turn to food? Obviously the very simple answer is “Oh, mother love is shown through this type of nurturing,” and in a lot of Asian cultures especially that’s a thing, but I also feel like I really uncovered, small logical reasons. Like, my first memory of food. I had always been regarded as this rotten child, and a very easy way of me gaining validation from my mother was when I ate well and did something that reminded her “that child is mine and she likes the same food that I do,” and my family saying, “Oh, she’s so pretty, she’s eating that so well.” Writing about those memories made me realize that’s part of something that might have contributed to my natural desire to want to help feed my mother because it seemed like a very obvious role reversal to step into. I think you think about these things, but you don’t examine them in so detailed of a way as when you’re writing about them and revising and structuring and threading them together.
The book really shows this relationship between food and memory and your mom’s memories of how people loved their food conveyed so much, even in small moments. When we eat food, we have these memories of time and place and people; it’s such a visceral connection. While you were writing, did you eat certain things, like, “Okay, I’m writing about this part so I’m going to eat the foods from my memory,” or was it actually, “No, I just had a lot of Cheez-Its while I was writing”?
I spent a lot of time in Korea, actually, and some of the things that were happening were happening in real time. [The book] was certainly a lot easier to write with my aunt in Korea, and that changed the sort of arc of the book a lot. One of the things, like when we eat the cold noodles, the naengmyeon, that happened as I was writing the beginning. So definitely going out and just eating things helped to spark new memories a lot. I went to the kalguksu [restaurant] that my mom really liked and realized I’d forgotten certain things that were really helpful, like I forgot how gelatinous the broth is there and how garlicky the kimchee is. Writing about food to me was the easiest part of the book because it’s so packed full of sensory details that you can experience right away. Things that were harder for me were things like describing the weather on a spring day when you also found out that your mom had cancer, so to figure out how to conjure that is much harder than, “Oh, I guess I have to go eat jatjuk today” … for research.
With memoir, you have to pick an ending, yet with memoir nothing ends: grief doesn’t end; your idea of identity doesn’t end; your story doesn't end. The ending of this book was very evocative, ending on a tour. I’m thinking especially of the line about your “mother-tongue,” in Korea, and not singing your own words. Did that ending came easily to you, or did you fiddle around?
I definitely had no idea how the book was going to end, and as you said, grief never ends, so you don’t want to have this fake saccharine ending where you’re like, “And then through making kimchee, I’m, like, over it now,” so it was definitely tough.
The first draft I submitted I ended where I’m crying in the Korean spa, and the editor was like, “Is this really … I’m not sure this is the ending.” In retrospect, that was pretty bleak. But I think I was really shying away from writing about my life as a musician when I first started. I felt like it was too confusing to have two big themes. For me, the thematic vehicle of the book is food. I also didn’t want anyone to get the sense that I was trying to pretend that I had this … like it’s not a “how I came to be” book. It’s not a book about Japanese Breakfast. I’m not Patti Smith or Jeff Tweedy who have enough time between where they began and their lives, and have built something far grander than my career.
But then I realized when I went to revise that another really big part is about being a young creative and a coming-of-age story about how badly I wanted to live that life. And it was a major point of contention between me and my immigrant mother, but ultimately is where I feel like I truly belong. Like I don’t know if I would identify as Korean or as American — I don’t feel quite at home in either space. Where I do feel like I belong and where I feel like the story ends is in that creative space that I’ve created for myself.
You mention Karen O in the book as someone who was bucking trends and who you looked up to and could see yourself in. Have there been any writers you also looked up to and could see yourself in, or anyone you want to give a shout out to who was very important in your writing journey?
I feel like they are less direct. In college, I was really into Richard Ford, Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill. None of them are Asian, but I love their literary voices. I really do love Chang-Rae Lee, I love Native Speaker, and he has some amazing essays that actually I read later, after writing Crying in H Mart. His food writing in The New Yorker is incredible. Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-sook is also a book I absolutely love. I loved Joan Didion’s memoirs about grief. They were really special for me. I read a lot of food memoir, read Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat and Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone. I love M. F. K. Fisher’s food writing, I think she’s fantastic. I love Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home — the way that she explores how little you can know about your parent and, during that process of uncovering information, find out a lot more about not just your relationship but about yourself, too.
Katie Schwarz is a writer and guitar teacher. She is currently completing her memoir about living with Crohn’s Disease from childhood through adulthood.