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From Crying in H Mart to Japanese Breakfast: A Brief Closer Look into the Work of Michelle Zauner

Michelle Zauner runs two artistic courses.

In April 2021, Zauner published what critics widely consider one of 2021’s “must-reads.” The memoir follows Zauner’s experience growing up Korean-American in Eugene, Oregon and the effects of her mother’s passing on her life. Referring to the chain of H Marts throughout the United States, a grocery store and food court specializing in Korean and other Asian food products, the title signals the memoir’s remembrance of Zauner’s mother through detailed discussion of food and Korean cuisine. The beginning of the memoir detailed Zauner’s childhood and her relationship with her mother and extended family. She wrote of her rebellion against her parents, her struggles in high school, her growing interest in the arts, and her mother’s push for Zauner’s focus on physical appearance and collegiate success. Zauner, with special direction from her mother, attended Bryn Mawr College, just outside Philadelphia. Zauner touched on the distance while at university strengthening her relationship with her mother, the one damaged by their steadfast disagreements while Zauner attended school back in Eugene. Later in the book, Zauner tells of her life in Philadelphia, with her now-husband Peter, working at a Mexican restaurant, and her time in and out of various indie-rock music groups. The author ultimately defined the mental stage on which she stood when receiving news of her mother’s illness, the diagnosis framing most of the memoir’s remaining anecdotes.

Readers follow an emotional and difficult description of living and aiding those living with a fatal disease. Zauner wrote of, especially clearly, her desire to be there for her mother, to show up for her mother, to “re-pay” her for the pair’s years of disagreements leading up to university. It is here particularly that the young writer shares the real pain of losing a loved one; through recounting with striking detail the mundane, almost lifeless, realities of a cancer-induced daily routine (protein shakes, short walks, nausea, sleep, and sleeplessness), the audience feels Zauner’s emotion, her desire to stand by her mother during the mentally draining aspects of this routine.

Zauner lost her mother in 2014. And, after reporting what it was like to walk with her mother through those last physically quiet and mentally loud months of life, during which Zauner married Peter, readers settle into and fully embrace the most consistent theme in the memoir: food. The text flows through warm, inviting detail of the author’s relationship with food. The author and readers embrace the delectable meals’ healing descriptions. The meals, Zauner writes, spoke to her mother’s love of making her close friends and family feel comfortable, and how these recipes represented her mother’s desire to please her guests and her loved ones with their favorite foods. Readers learn of Zauner’s attempt to keep her mother physically alive by learning these childhood meals and spiritually alive through practicing them in her Brooklyn apartment. Zauner includes every name, every ingredient, every scent, and every taste she can adequately remember and describe.

Although I found myself a bit under-invested in all the intricacies of the story, I felt active in Zauner’s memory of her mother and primarily so through the unrelenting descriptions of food.

Zauner not only celebrated her mother through studying food, ingredients, and recipes but through her second artistic course, that of her successful indie-rock band’s three albums. The band regained success after her mother died with its debut complete 2016 album “Psychopomp.” The band travelled on tour throughout the United States and South Korea. “Psychopomp” and the band’s future albums speak to the young author’s acceptance of her mother’s death. With over 1.5 monthly listeners on Spotify, Japanese Breakfast furthers Zauner’s artistic tendencies with successful tracks like “Be Sweet” and “Road Head” and an upbeat, catchy indie-pop feel. Zauner’s writing revealed not only the healing effects of food but also of music and performance.

The unique detail and provocative lines of Crying in H Mart moved me, but it’s ultimately Zauner’s cross-media talent that enthralls me, pushing me to understand the author and musician’s impact in the arts and media over recent years.

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