Michelle Zauner on the urgency of her pain in Crying in H Mart
Michelle Zauner, who has been curating a career in the indie-rock scene for years, has also long been contemplating a book. A 2016 essay about learning how to make kimchi, published in Glamour magazine, first helped set the intention, but it wasn't until a 2018 New Yorker essay— about reckoning with her Korean identity and the loss of her mother—went viral that authoring a memoir became a real possibility. "I had this desire to air all grievances, and this urgency to have people comprehend my pain," says Zauner, 32, over Zoom from her Brooklyn apartment.
The essay shares a title with her full-length literary debut, which hits shelves in late April. In Crying in H Mart, Zauner shares an unflinchingly frank account of her life, centered on love, identity, food, and grief. Through prose that's vivacious and lyrical, Zauner — who uses the alias Japanese Breakfast in her music career — paints a deeply moving portrait of the complexities of growing up Korean American and losing her mother to terminal cancer in 2014.
While tragedy threatened to overshadow much of Zauner's relationship with her mom, it became "exciting" for her to write about their bond pre–cancer diagnosis. And it's why the most poignant stories in H Mart include her lively, sensuous descriptions of Korean food — like jjigae, gimbap, and tteokbokki — and the everlasting ties it creates to her loved ones. "A lot of the traumatic experiences of caretaking for someone whose health is deteriorating sort of fogged over what was good about our relationship, and a whole huge part of my life," she says.
The process of creating the book began after completing her first Japanese Breakfast Asian tour, when, on a six-week break in Korea, she began outlining and writing chapters. Sharing autobiographical details wasn't a stretch for Zauner, who has penned songs full of her own personal moments. But a memoir was uncharted territory for the multi-hyphenate. "There's so much more ambiguity in writing songs than you're allowed to have in, particularly, nonfiction," says Zauner. "So it was definitely a big departure for me in terms of writing style." Still, she found familiarity in the process of book writing when it came to sequencing: "Something that was really fun for me was coming up with chapter titles, because it feels like the track listing on a record."
Alongside the book, Zauner is releasing her third studio album, Jubilee. Due June 4, the follow-up to 2017's critically acclaimed Soft Sounds From Another Planet is a departure from her previous work — this time, she aimed to create music that stemmed from joy and her fight to experience it. It was a challenge she welcomed. "I wrote two albums that were largely about grief and then had to go and write an entire book about it," says Zauner. "So with this new record, I finally felt ready to tackle something a little bit distanced from that."
Composing her memoir helped her reach that turning point. After years of oscillating grief, she ultimately found catharsis in what she describes as "large concentrated periods of time just remembering," noting how nice it was to "take a magnifying glass to memory." Writing H Mart allowed her mother to become more than the sickness that consumed her: She was the person who showed her love through unrelenting and unfiltered truth telling, by smoothing her forehead to prevent wrinkles, with the gift of a rice snack. And that's exactly how Zauner wants to remember her.