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Unexpected Solace: An Interview with Michelle Zauner

The author of Crying in H Mart talks about Korean cooking celebrity Maangchi, caretaking, and psychological undoings

In a year as devastating and full of loss as the last, Michelle Zauner’s words could not have come at a better time. Crying in H Mart, her book debut from April 2021, is a memoir in essays that is both vulnerable and brave, much like the eclectic, dreamy music she makes under the name Japanese Breakfast. Zauner writes eloquently about grief, identity, and Korean cooking as a biracial Korean American who lost her mother in 2014. In the first essay, which shares its title with the book and originally appeared in The New Yorker in 2018, she questions, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” 

For me, crying in an H Mart seemed like a very relatable activity, so much so that my mother texted me a link to the New Yorker piece the week it was published, asking, “Isn’t this just so well written?!” Shortly after reading Zauner’s essay, I made a quiet, short film about H Mart that nobody saw. I wanted to encapsulate the feeling of home and memory on film, along with Zauner’s lyricism about the supermarket chain that stocks essentials for many Korean Americans’ diets. 

Zauner writes with verve and depth about the dishes she enjoyed with her mother as a child and the dishes she learned to cook in the aftermath of her mother’s death. But the collection is not just an homage to food—it is also a tribute to the relationships between mothers and daughters. Zauner writes about the last years she had together with her Korean-born mother, Chongmi:

“Thrown as we were on opposite sides of a fault line—generational, cultural, linguistic—we wandered lost without a reference point, each of us unintelligible to the other’s expectations, until these past few years when we had just begun to unlock the mystery, carve the psychic space to accommodate each other, appreciate the differences between us, linger in our refracted commonalities.”

Zauner’s book is not all that debuted in 2021—her Grammy-nominated album, Jubilee, which radiates joy and calls for commemoration, was released last June. With nostalgic openers, like “Paprika” and “Kokomo, IN” and the vulnerable closing tracks “Tactics” and “Posing for Cars,” Zauner is making exceptional contributions to art that honors the Korean diaspora. 

We spoke last year, the week of the book’s release, and talked about YouTube star and Korean cooking celebrity Maangchi, attempting caretaking alongside her mother’s best friend, The Sopranos, and psychological undoings. Since then, it was announced that MGM’s Orion Pictures would be adapting Crying in H Mart as a film to bring the story of a young biracial Korean American girl’s artistic journey visually alive on screen.

—Ruth Minah Buchwald

Ruth Minah Buchwald

I’d love to start off by talking about the titular essay of the collection, Crying in H Mart. My Korean mother actually sent it to me when it was first published and we both couldn’t stop talking about and crying over it because the essay captures the complex relationship between Korean mothers and their half-Korean children. How did it, and the rest of the collection, come about?

Michelle Zauner

It actually started two years earlier, with this essay called “Love, Loss, and Kimchi” that was published in Glamour in 2016. I was writing that essay while I was working in New York as a sales assistant for an advertising company, and I found a real therapeutic joy at the time in learning how to cook Korean dishes with Maangchi. I don’t think I understood why exactly I was doing it then. It seemed like this very cute, Korean Julie and Julia moment. I thought it was funny that Maangchi, this person on the internet, impacted my life so deeply and had no idea, and I wanted to write an ode to this woman who helped me during such a hard time. So I wrote that essay and got a lot of encouragement after it was published.

In 2017, my band went on tour in Asia and I stayed behind in Seoul for six weeks and started writing what I thought could be a book. The first chapter was “Crying in H Mart” and it’s kind of an “if you give a mouse a cookie” situation—because I was cooking with Maangchi, I had to go to a Korean grocery store and because I went to the Korean grocery store, I was having this overwhelming realization of how special that place was for me and how it was really helping me have these memories of my mom that I wasn’t able to have before. 

“Crying in H Mart” started off as the first chapter of the book before it was published as an essay. We had gotten in contact with The New Yorker, who asked to see some writing, so I polished up the first chapter and sent it off. It had such an overwhelming response, so I started putting together a proposal and working with an agent. From 2018 to 2020, I worked very intensely on the book, largely on tour, and then I took another retreat to Seoul in May 2019 and over three weeks I finished my rough draft. It was a long process and a big part of it was understanding why I was doing what I was doing.

The first line of the book reads, “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart,” and the whole book is answering the question, “Why do you do that?”

RMB

This collection feels like an homage to identity—you write about your own, your mother’s, and other Korean American mothers referred to by their children’s names in your community. How has your sense of identity evolved since writing this book?

MZ

When my mom was alive, [being Korean] felt like such an inherent part of who I was. It was never something that I really questioned and engaged with so actively. Now that she is gone, I feel that in order to maintain that part of my culture and identity, it’s something that I have to put work into. That’s why a lot of it is through writing or even engaging with different types of media, or cooking Korean food or eating Korean food regularly, or going to the grocery store. Those are all little rituals that I keep up with to preserve that part of my identity. It is definitely a new thing and something that I have more of an understanding of since I’ve written this book.

RMB

A line that really resonated with me is when you talk about how your mother said, “I’ve just never met anyone like you.” This is something I have also heard from my mother, and initially, it brought me a lot of shock and confusion. So much of this book is about the generational, cultural, and linguistic divides you both had to deal with. How did that statement affect you and/or guide this book?

MZ

That’s something my mom said to me that has stuck with me forever. It was a real turning point in our relationship. It fully encompassed everything we had gone through up until that point and was as close as I was ever going to get to an “I’m sorry.” That moment will always mark a real return to one another. This is a funny reference, but there’s a line that Tony Soprano says to his wife, Carmela [in the pilot of The Sopranos], “Girls and their mothers. She’ll come back to you.” Even in other cultures, that’s just a really common thing. A lot of mothers and daughters have really intense relationships.

Ultimately, [mothers] can make you feel the most loved and cared for, but they’re also the people who can then hurt you the most. That can be a very confusing thing. A lot of what mothers do to try to protect you is completely misunderstood as them standing in the way of your desires and passions. 

I knew that line was going to be part of the book. I felt like a lot of people would be either struck by it or relate to it because it was such a strange thing for my mom to say. She had a really poetic way of saying things. For me, that line meant, “I didn’t realize how much this meant to you. I didn’t realize how I should’ve given you space when you wanted it. I’ve just never met someone like you! I didn’t know how to navigate that.”

RMB

I love Maangchi and the essay in the book that is dedicated to her. The Vice Munchies video you both did was such a wonderful explanation of how Korean dishes, like budae jjigae, came to be during a period of war and desperation. One of the most beautiful scenes in this book is when you finally made jatjuk on your own for the first time using Maangchi’s recipe. You write about how empowered you felt after demystifying the dish that your mother’s friend from Korea, Kye, chose not to share with you after she became your mother’s primary caretaker. Can you speak more about finding solace in Maangchi and in people you didn’t expect to find it from?

MZ

I feel like this whole book is [an] unexpected solace. When you take care of someone, it becomes a very intense process. It can overtake people in a curious way. I really don’t blame Kye for how she handled things. I think that she didn’t realize how much importance I had bound up in this role reversal, of preparing foods for my mom—how much I wanted to take that role. 

Turning to Korean cooking was this psychological undoing of the failures I confronted when I was taking care of my mom, and making [jatjuk] for the first time was the full circle moment of feeling full for the first time. It was a very strange desire, to eat what my mom had eaten during her illness after she died. It was a very curious experience that I found great solace in.

RMB

What were you reading at the time, and which books that you’ve read at any point in your life helped prepare you to write yours?

MZ

There were all sorts of books that I read. I love  Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Rock Springs by Richard Ford, Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth, and any book by Lorrie Moore. These were all books that were really formative in my college years and taught me the style of writing that I was interested in pursuing. They were the books that my professor Daniel Torday taught at Bryn Mawr and informed so much of my writing and what I pay attention to, the details and movement and pacing.

To prepare for this book, I was interested in a lot of David Sedaris books and how he treats family and memoir. I loved Richard Ford’s Between Them: Remembering My Parents, which explores parents who are somewhat ordinary and takes a magnifying glass to them. I love Joan Didion’s memoirs on grief. The Year of Magical Thinking is just devastating and it’s such a perfect book about grief.

I reread Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes, Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. I really love this book by Shin Kyung-sook called Please Look After Mom. I liked Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker. I read Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which I loved. I also love Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. And then I read a lot of musicians’ memoirs just to see how everyone was handling all of this stuff.

RMB

I’d love to talk about your music, of which I am an immense fan, especially your album, Jubilee. When it comes to representation, you and Karen O—one of my favorite musicians and who you talk about in the book—are obvious icons for Korean girls. Who do you make your music for and how does representation play into your process, whether it be music or writing?

MZ

I write my music for me, honestly. I just chase after my interests in a very intuitive way and I feel like that is the only way I can think to write anything, really. My ideal reader and listener is myself, and anyone who finds themselves aligned with that taste is my ideal audience, you know?

I actually got to have a conversation with Karen O recently and we were talking about how neither of us wakes up every morning and is like, “Feeling very Korean American today!” I try to think about my human experience and put it into words, and the representation part comes afterwards because I just am those things and they’re attached to the art I make, whether I want to be or not.

RMB

How do your songwriting and narrative writing influence each other?

MZ

I feel like they are pulling from the same pool of memory. There’s a similar feeling you get, a shared sensitivity that you lean into just to observe people, experiences, and moments, and jot them down for later use. I think that they’re very similar.

Structurally, music is a little more intuitive and a little more heart, while writing a narrative is a little more brain and requires an analytical approach. It felt harder to write the book than the album, but a lot of people who’ve listened to my music will find that there are a lot of borrowed lines and lyrics and song titles that make their way into chapter titles or lines in the book.