Michelle Zauner was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Eugene, Oregon, by her American father and Korean mother. She is already well known as an indie pop singer/songwriter, who performs and records under the name Japanese Breakfast. (Her third studio album is scheduled for release later this month, and she will be in Omaha on July 31 at the Maha Music Festival.) Her debut book, Crying in H Mart, is an expansion of an essay of the same name that she published in the New Yorker in 2018.
If I had to sum up Crying in H Mart in a single sentence, I’d say it’s a memoir by a daughter about a fraught relationship with her late mother. But that’s reductive. It’s also an exercise in grieving, a culinary celebration, and an exploration of what it’s like to straddle two cultures, not feeling like you completely belong in either one. There’s also a love story slipped in.
H Mart, Zauner tells us on the opening page of her book, is a U.S. supermarket chain that specializes in Asian food, “where parachute kids go to get the exact brand of instant noodles that reminds them of home.” It’s also frequently a trigger for Zauner’s grief over the loss of her mother, who died in 2014, at the age of 56, after a brief, brutal battle with cancer. This death is the animating event of the memoir, but Zauner’s narrative stretches backward and forward in time. She recounts both the prickly relationship she had with her mother growing up and the love of Korean food they shared. She also addresses the alienation she feels from her Korean self after losing her mother: “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” she asks herself at one point, while shopping at H Mart.
Zauner’s writing is often visceral, which leads to a powerful reading experience: Her descriptions of food—how it tastes, what it feels like to share it, the yearning to be able to prepare it—are transporting; however, her descriptions of the hands-on care she provided to her mother in her final days, as her body deteriorated, are raw and gut wrenching. The latter may be too much for someone who has recently gone through something similar, but it’s a testament to Zauner’s talent that she is able to bring all types of experiences to vivid life.
Zauner, Michelle. Crying in H Mart: A Memoir. New York: Random House Audio, 2021.