Japanese Breakfast on How Writing a Memoir is Like Making Kimchi
Michelle Zauner, the musician Japanese Breakfast and author of "Crying In H Mart," on food as an expression of love
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In Crying in H Mart, Michelle Zauner—also known as the indie-pop musician Japanese Breakfast—writes of her mother’s battle with terminal cancer and the caretaking process. The mother-daughter relationship is the beating pulse of this memoir, presented in all of its uncomfortable complexities. But if this relationship is the main melody, there are countermelodies and harmonies that add to the depth of Zauner’s memoir: the trickiness of negotiating a mixed racial identity in both America and South Korea, of constantly straddling two lines. The preparation and consumption of food, and what it means to cook for someone. The desire to be a musician, to find one’s own path in the world. The implications of being someone who needs to record, to reflect, to process grief in a creative manner. These all come together to create a polyphony of themes, held together by Zauner’s sincere prose.
Like her music, Zauner’s memoir is filled with verve, lyricism, and those little everyday details that craft a visceral reality. Pitchfork’s review of Zauner’s album, Psychopomp, notes how “Zauner’s gift for connecting specific details to simple metaphor [is] uniquely affecting”—the same could be said for her writing. She has a way of extrapolating poignant meaning out of commonplace objects, whether those are H Mart groceries or old kimchi fridges. My favorite passage in Crying in H Mart, perhaps, is when Zauner compares her grieving and documenting process to that of fermenting kimchi:
“The memories I had stored, I could not let fester. Could not let trauma infiltrate and spread, to spoil and render them useless. They were moments to be tended. The culture we shared was active, effervescent in my gut and in my genes, and I had to seize it, foster it so it did not die in me. So that I could pass it on someday.”
Through her memoir, Zauner not only passes on and articulates her grief, but also creates a space for that grief to transmute, develop, ferment—into something deeply poignant and beautifully insightful. I’m certain I won’t be the only reader to cry from the first 10 pages onwards. After I finished, I washed my face—then opened my fridge to make myself a midnight snack of kimchi fried rice. Later on, I was grateful to have the chance to chat with Zauner about the memoir-writing process, as well as discussing our favorite Korean dishes.
Jae-Yeon Yoo: First of all, thank you for sharing this book. I’ve been feeling really homesick for Seoul during the pandemic, with all the mixed homesickness of being a Korean who’s spent most of her adult years in America, and this book really resonated with me.
Michelle Zauner: Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. In a way, I’m the most scared to see what other Koreans will have to say about this book.
JY: How come?
MZ: Because I think that we’re not often used to seeing our story be told, and so, of course, it’s gonna either resonate with them the most, or they’ll be the most critical of what I got wrong [or] if it doesn’t mirror their experience, you know. I also never wanted to write a book that pandered to a white audience in any way, so I’m just, you know, always nervous of both sides. [Writing this memoir] was the first time I’ve felt like, “Oh my god, am I not Korean enough to write something like this?” There are a lot of people that have very strong opinions on the internet that don’t feel like I’m Korean enough to talk about certain things. So I’m very, very glad you liked the book.
JY: Yeah, I think—for writers of marginalized identities—there’s this total burden of trying to be authentic, to get everything “right” and speak for an entire population. When really, at the end of the day, we all have the right to tell our individual stories. Your point about not pandering to a white audience ties into something I was curious about; you directly address the reader throughout the book, such as how you use “you” and “us” pronouns to describe the H Mart community. Who is Crying in H Mart written for?
MZ: Oh, it’s for me [laughs]. I feel like I don’t think too much about it. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve had the experience of writing about a very specific personal thing that feels like only I can relate to, yet finding out that specificity is what makes something so moving and detailed and universal. So, I try not to think too much about [my audience], though there are certainly fans of my band who I’ve met—that to me is the ideal audience, because they were who I wanted to reach. You know, in the same way that Karen O hit me as a teenager, I hope to have that kind of effect on young Asian Americans that struggle to see themselves or hear their stories told. Those readers are really personal to me, but I tried to just write from a very personal place that I hope that anyone can relate to.
JY: The way you tackle grief and food is definitely universal. I also love the way you negotiated multiple languages in this memoir; not only the obvious ones of Korean and English, but how you crafted food as a language in it of itself. Could you talk more about this interplay between language and food for you?
MZ: For me, growing up with a family that I struggled to communicate with, food became a very natural vehicle for, you know, tenderness and expression of love. It is also a very simple language; when you travel, one of the first things you learn how to say—beyond like hello and thank you—is, “That’s delicious!” For my family, a replacement for language was sharing a meal together, communicating our shared love for it.
JY: Yeah, your book beautifully articulates how food is what defines you as an individual, while simultaneously being something that ties you into a broader community. You talk about your mother, for example, and her sharp memory for others’ food preferences.
MZ: Yeah, that’s something that stuck with me too. I am a little obsessive about which one of my friends is vegan or gluten-free, or can’t have mushrooms. So, for me, those types of preferences are so important. I remember meeting my friend’s fiance, and she asked him, “Do you like cilantro?” You’ve loved each other for three years and you don’t know if your partner likes cilantro?! Those things just hold a—I don’t know—heavy weight in my relationships.
JY: Absolutely. I feel like you must throw great dinner parties.
MZ: Yeah, I used to!
JY: As someone who also grew up with Korean culture before it was considered “cool” in America, it’s been strange to watch Korean food become hip (like gochujang and kimchi)—not to mention the skyrocketing popularity of K-pop, K-drama, and skincare. In Crying in H Mart, you mention how you started hiding your Korean identity in middle school in order to fit in better. What’s it like, to watch it become so “in vogue”?
MZ: It’s strange, but it’s exciting. I think that our generation is maybe a bit more protective about it than our parents’ generation. But I remember when PSY and “Gangnam Style” were a big thing, and how proud and excited my mom was about that, or that more American people knew of what bibimbap was. I think that there’s some sorrow that I didn’t get to experience that appreciation when I was younger, but there’s also a real excitement that kids—who maybe would have felt out of place growing up—have this culture that is being celebrated now. It feels really exciting to me that they get to have that.
JY: Music is obviously a huge part of your artistic journey and identity, and is mentioned throughout Crying in H Mart. I’m curious to hear about the connections or differences between the memoir-writing process and your songwriting process.
MZ: I did study creative writing in college, but I’ve been writing songs and albums since I was 16. Songwriting affords the opportunity to be a bit more ambiguous; it’s sort of essentially just writing a series of poetic fragments.
The big lesson that I took away is that [the book-writing process] is a long haul. One of the best pieces of advice from my editor was, “I want to hear more about the weather.” I just learned so much about everything—describing place, dialogue, pacing. I also learned just how important perspective is: to just walk away and not think about something for months at a time, knowing that you’re going to return and rework something. Coming back with a fresh brain is incredibly, incredibly important. I rewrote the second chapter of this book probably 12 times, before I just deleted it. The process was learning to take a cold, hard look at yourself, and seeing what sticks.
JY: You’ve talked about how your past two albums, Psychopomp and Soft Sounds From Another Planet, explored your mother’s passing through different frameworks; how does this memoir relate to your albums?
MZ: They all encompass the same period of time, in a way. My two records explore a lot of the same things. Psychopomp was such a raw experience, written right in the time about what had just happened and immediately after my mother had passed. I think a lot of the book covers the same kind of stuff; some of the lyrics are borrowed from Psychopomp [and used in Crying in H Mart]. Like, “the heavy hand” [a chapter title] is a lyric from the song “Rugged Country” and is about my mother’s wedding ring. The song “In Heaven” is about this frustration with people using God as a crutch to get over grief, and [me] not having that, also about my dog mourning—those are all things that get covered in the book. For Soft Sounds, that record was so much about the disassociating process that I went through and enduring trauma—calling it by that for the first time, recognizing that trauma as a kid in the caretaking process. Obviously, the book shares a lot of those same themes as well.
JY: I was really struck by one of your last chapters, which talks about your childhood photos being sent to you via the kimchi fridge. You talk about fermentation and not letting memories fester, transforming that so—cliche as it is—it does seem like it’s a continual process and not about an end goal. Can you talk a bit more about this idea of kimchi-making and (metaphorical or literal) fermentation?
MZ: Well, I highly recommend kimchi-making as an activity! Especially right now, when some people have more time on their hands than others. I think that it’s a really beautiful thing, and it takes such a long time. It requires a lot of patience and it’s such a tactile, immersive experience. It feels very meditative and special. And after waiting, there’s a wonderful end product to have—especially if you eat a lot of kimchi, like I do. I also think it helps you appreciate food so much more in the same way that baking your own bread or growing your own food can. You really appreciate something more, once you know what exactly goes into it.
JY: The way you just talked about the kimchi-making process echoed what you were saying earlier about the revision process for your memoir. The importance of time—of being really viscerally immersed, then letting something sit and coming back to it.
MZ: Mmm, yeah! But, you know, (laughs) there’s no revising kimchi, if you fuck it up early on.
JY: One moment of linguistic analysis that was very powerful for me was your description of “yeppeu,” [which can mean both “pretty” and “good” or “well-behaved” in Korean]. You note how “this fusion of moral and aesthetic approval was an early introduction to the value of beauty and the rewards it had in store.” Beauty—and the upkeep of it, through makeup and clothing—is a sub-theme that runs throughout the book, highlighted by your mother’s physical decline. I’ve long admired your aesthetic and fashion choices; could you talk a bit about how your morals and aesthetics fuse (or clash)?
MZ: Yeah, it was a real arguing point of contention between my mom and I. When I was growing up, I went from aspiring to be “yeppeu” to shirking “yeppeu.” I really went through an ugly things phase where I wore oversized t-shirts and ugly sweaters. I don’t know why I gravitated towards those—I guess I felt like I needed to dress that way to be taken seriously as an artist, or even as a person, as a woman. It was also just the aesthetics of the age, I guess. But now it’s nice, because I’ve grown to appreciate fashion—in a way that my mom would be rolling in her grave about. It’s been really fun to come to [fashion] on my own terms. It was funny because my mom, like many Korean moms, was obsessed with Chanel. I actually just did a shoot for Harper’s Bazaar, where they put me in a Chanel suit to be photographed in. And they were like, “Okay, we want to see more of your arms; we love the juxtaposition of your tattoos and the Chanel luxury suit.” Hearing that was such a wonderful full circle moment.
JY: It does sound like your mom was someone who voiced her opinions strongly. In the memoir, you contrast her “brutal, industrial-strength[,] sinewy” love against the “Mommy-Mom,” this ideal American housewife and mother figure. Simultaneously, a leitmotif that surfaces throughout the book is one of your mother’s coined idioms, about always “saving 10% of yourself” in every relationship. Familial love, in the terms it’s described in Crying in H-Mart, seems to present love as a currency—or something numerically measurable (percentage-able). Can you talk more about this portrayal of love, especially as juxtaposed against the American Dream model?
MZ: I think that, for a long time, I just didn’t understand the way that my mother loved me and it was a very confusing relationship for me—for both of us. A line that sticks out to me in the book is when my mother tells me, “I’ve just never met someone like you.” That was a huge moment for both of us because, all this time, I had really felt how cruel and critical and judgmental she could be, and thought they were very idiosyncratic parts of her personality. But, as I became older, I realized that it’s really rooted in the culture in which she was raised and the way that her mother loved her. I didn’t have very many Korean friends growing up, and, as I’ve gotten older and had the opportunity to have more Korean or Asian friends, I realized that’s a thing that really unites a lot of us. I don’t know a lot of American moms out there, who say, like, “Honey, you’re really breaking out” or be really critical. That was just a really confusing thing for me. But then, as I got older and exposed to more people who had similar upbringings to me, I realized, “Oh, your mom also hates everything you bought her for her birthday? I should also accept that’s a normal thing.” A lot of my mom and dad’s relationship was lost in translation; I don’t think I really knew that until I was older and I’m still learning a lot about that now.
JY: Yeah, I appreciated how you didn’t try to sugarcoat anything; the family dynamics were presented in a nuanced, complex, and sometimes illogical way—because familial love doesn’t work logically.
MZ: I think that you’d be hard-pressed to find like any person who’s had a completely frictionless relationship with their parents. A lot of people’s relationships with their moms is that [mothers] have the ability to cut you down yet lift you up in a way that no one else can; that relationship is so intense and special. And I think that was a really important part for me to include. It had to be this complicated good with the bad, otherwise, it wouldn’t have been real for anyone.
JY: And I can’t leave this interview without asking a bit about food. What’s a Korean dish that you can’t recreate at home that you really wish you could?
MZ: Mmm. That’s a good one. Oh—pajun [scallion pancake]! I’ve tried to make pajun, or any kind of jun [savory pancakes]. My husband loves them. And I always want to make them really ba-sak ba-sak [extra crispy]. But I never can get it; it’s just never crispy enough. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.
JY: For pajun, we’ve also been trying; my sister tried putting in starch.
MZ: I tried starch! It didn’t work, so I gave up for a while.
JY: Speaking of jun, I think we were actually planning on making minari-jun tonight for dinner.
MZ: Oh, did you see the movie?
JY: I did, did you? What did you think of it?
MZ: I loved it. And I really adored [the grandmother]. I have so much respect for a woman of that age who is still challenging herself, artistically and creatively, putting herself in a situation she doesn’t have to be in to make art I really admire. And obviously her acting was just fantastic in that movie.
JY: It’s really exciting to see all these different depictions of Korean American life coming out. Minari is obviously very different from Crying in H-Mart, and I think it’s great to have this range and space. Can you talk about the scarcity mindset around Asian American performers? You mention this attitude in the book, when your younger self reflects, “if there’s already one Asian girl doing [rock music], then there’s no longer space for me.” Do you feel like that’s changed at all or is changing?
MZ: Well, I think it is changing because we have a word for it now. But I still have that feeling all the time—I’m jealous of my peers that are doing similar things, and it’s just one of those things that you have to remind yourself to constantly fight against. It’s the same thing with internalized misogyny; I feel like I am up against that all the time. Or internalized racism. I think that it’s something that exists in all of us that you have to actively fight against all the time. Just because things are getting better, it doesn’t mean that [these systems] just go away automatically.