In memory of her late mother, Michelle Zauner’s memoir honors their shared Korean heritage
Michelle Zauner is not only a literary star, she is a real rock star. Her first memoir, “Crying in H Mart” was a critically acclaimed bestseller. And when she’s not busy writing books, she’s a vocalist and guitarist for her alternative pop group, Japanese Breakfast.
You may have seen Japanese Breakfast on the Season 47 finale of “Saturday Night Live” on May 21. If you missed it, we’ve got you covered:
Zauner recently joined Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” to talk about her memoir and the impact her mother’s death had on her.
“My mother was a Korean, and she passed away in 2014 from a short battle with cancer. And I found myself going to H Mart after her death, as a way to connect with her memory and this culture that we let’s share,” Zauner said.
Zauner’s father is white, so she relied on her mother to share her Korean heritage. And although his mother didn’t teach him to cook, she raised Zauner to enjoy Korean cuisine, mostly purchased from H Mart, an Asian supermarket chain specializing in Korean food products. The “H” stands for “han au reum” which roughly translates to “an arm full of groceries”. The first H Mart opened in Woodside, New York in 1980. Today there are nearly 100 stores in the United States.
As Zauner writes in her book: “I will cry when I see a Korean grandmother eating seafood noodles in the food court, throwing shrimp heads and mussel shells on the lid of the bowl of his daughter’s tin rice.”
“I think it’s such an intense, nostalgic feeling to be in this grocery store with ingredients that remind me of dishes my mom used to make or ingredients she loved and exposed me to,” Zauner told “BETA”.
Zauner described his relationship with his mother as “complicated” and admitted it “could be tumultuous”.
“But my mother was a housewife and I was an only child,” she explained. “So we were very, very close and very close to each other. But also, I was fiercely independent. And she also had a real vision for me that wasn’t really going to plan.”
His mother’s vision was for Zauner to reach the height of his potential. This did not include her daughter’s desire to become a rock star.
Mourning his death
After Zauner’s mother died, his relationship with his father changed.
“Our grief came over us in very different ways, and it was hard to support each other and connect for a while,” she said.
Zauner points out that they were also in very different chapters of their lives. Zauner was 25 and just beginning his adult life. On the other hand, her father was at the point in his life where he was ready to retire with his wife and enjoy their life that they had spent 30 years building together.
“And suddenly we had to rebuild what our next chapters were going to be in the wake of his loss.“, Zauner said.
Part of this reconstruction was learning more about the woman Zauner’s mother was when she wasn’t a parent or wife – leaving some of her true feelings and desires to herself and for herself.
“I think my mom was very impressive that way,” Zauner said. “She was very private and could be very stoic and restrained and mysterious in that way.”
Zauner continued, “I think that’s very true for a lot of people. That there’s this kind of hidden 10% that you hide from different people in your life..”
After her mother’s death, Zauner tried to connect with her father and aunt in an effort to find out the 10% they knew about her. She remembers her aunt telling her that Korea really misses her mother and that’s why her mother behaved in a certain way. Zauner initially had doubts about this theory.
“But then I realized, maybe it was just something my mom never told us because she never wanted us to worry about her missing home,” Zauner said. “But of course she did. And of course she was telling her sister, who she could confide in, that she missed home.”
“I think it’s kind of an American concept of being yourself and being honest all the time that I think sometimes hiding information or keeping secrets from people is actually the strongest thing and the more powerful to do,” she continued. “To me, that’s a more generous and loving gesture than being completely honest with your feelings all the time.”
Along with “Crying in H Mart,” Zauner also considers most of Japanese Breakfast’s debut album, “Psychopomp,” to be a tribute to his mother.
“‘In Heaven’ speaks a lot about that period of my life,” she said. “How difficult it was to be a non-religious person dealing with loss.
Orion Pictures plans to make a feature film based on “Crying in H Mart.” Zauner has already written the first draft and is working on revisions. She also oversees the soundtrack.
“I definitely don’t want to create an original score. I’m so done with the story that I don’t think I need to do anything that’s involved in the story anymore,” she said.
“‘Garden State’ was a coming-of-age movie for people of my generation. And that soundtrack was so important to people that I would love to have my version of it.”