While Michelle Zauner may be best known by her musical project, Japanese Breakfast, she writes with an equivalent passion. As someone relatively unfamiliar with her music, it is in writing that I knew her first. I came across the essay “Crying in H Mart” years ago in The New Yorker. It resonated with me, I shared it along, and for many months I thought nothing of it until news of this memoir came my way. While I am not Korean-American, nor have I lost a parent, I remembered in Zauner’s writing an equal mix of melancholy and exquisite food writing. Long story short, I hungered for more.
It is not unusual for a memoir to describe the decline and aftermath of a loved one, and what it means to move on. From Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking to Maya Shanbhag Lang’s What We Carry, we’ve seen iterations of this memoir across cultures and with varying degrees of catharsis at the end. Michelle Zauner’s take is exquisitely detailed and wonderfully layered, both episodic in its individual essays and continuous in its exploration of grief. Its depictions of motherhood and daughterhood stand alone.
Crying in H Mart revolves around Zauner’s mother, Chongmi, and her deterioration and death from cancer. The memoir does not start with Chongmi directly, but rather her impact. The titular essay shows Zauner as an adult buying groceries at the Korean H Mart, overcome with emotion. Anger at seeing Korean women allowed to grow older than her mother did. Tenderness at seeing families bond over shared food. Helplessness as she proclaims, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” Zauner, a biracial woman, sees the death of her mother as a partial death of identity.
The memoir goes on to depict Zauner’s fraught relationship with her mother, especially when it comes to appearance and disposition. In “Save Your Tears,” she describes her mother’s obsession with beauty products and household perfection, leading to a vice-like grip on her daughter’s development. In “Double Lid,” we are introduced to Zauner’s Korean relatives and the impact of these infrequent visits. And then we’re thrust into a more recent past, unpacking and detailing her mother’s illness. How these things interweave with the author’s relationships, her rising success in music. The essays lose their episodic nature and weave together as a cohesive memoir. Themes mentioned earlier are picked up and carried on.
We see cancer, death, and dying as it is. The stopping and starting of breath, the fallen clumps of hair, the rejection of food. This latter point is especially painful, as Zauner begins to discover Korean cuisine in an attempt to draw close to her mother, yet her mother cannot stomach strong, pungent recipes. We see the complexity of an impulse vacation for Zauner and her father after burying the dead. We see there is no one way to grieve and no one way to remember. Zauner never sugarcoats her mother, although we feel her urge to do so. It’s a natural impulse to reminisce and block out sour memories when remembering someone lost. Creating a new picture from the pieces we have. Zauner, however, shows us all the pieces. We see how her mother’s legacy lives in its fragmented way, in photographs, family members, and recipes.
I came to Crying in H Mart expecting to cry (which I did), but what I did not expect was the amount of self-reflection it would cause. Zauner eschews broad platitudes and makes her work relatable, both on a cultural and personal level. She does not overexplain her Korean heritage, doesn’t provide a footnote for every morsel of food. She unpacks a difficult mother-daughter relationship without falling victim to stereotype. She makes no attempt to “humanize” her mother through glowing eulogy, but merely shows us the patchwork quilt of scattered memories. Her mother was human, is human. In this book, Zauner brings us all in so close that we’re left with no other option but to examine our own lives just as closely.
Crying in H Mart
By Michelle Zauner
Knopf Publishing Group
Published April 20, 2021
Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms