Photography Peter Ash Lee

Michelle Zauner’s book Crying in H Mart leaves you hungry and heartbroken

Japanese Breakfast gives us the lowdown on her striking, food-focused memoir 'Crying in H Mart' and forthcoming album 'Jubilee'.

by Jenna Mahale
28 April 2021, 6:45am

Photography Peter Ash Lee

Like many of the greats before her, Michelle Zauner dove headfirst into field research when writing her first book, the highly-anticipated memoir Crying in H Mart. Fortunately for Michelle — whose previous writing has primarily existed as wrenching indie rock released under the moniker Japanese Breakfast — this involved multiple mung bean pancakes.

“Some people are like, ‘How did you remember how these things tasted all these years?’ The answer is that you just eat them again,” the 32-year-old multi-hyphenate tells me over Zoom, set up at her computer for a long day of press, a prepared stack of influential texts (MFK Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, Nora Ephron) resting in a pile behind her. “It’s much harder to try and describe a spring day when it’s snowing outside. [With food] you can just go and eat the thing you’re talking about.” An effective method it seems, judging from the writer’s evocative descriptions of heaped bowls of spicy jjamppong, and eating “salty, rich, custardy raw crab” straight from its shell.

As a literary project, Crying in H Mart has had many creative lives: first as a 2016 essay in Glamour named Love, Loss, and Kimchi, then as a viral New Yorker piece in 2018 and, finally, as the 256-page hardback proudly displayed in the background of her current Zoom set-up. 

Tracing the author’s life from her beginnings as a rebellious Korean kid in suburban Oregon, the book is a lush portrait of a complicated mother-daughter relationship cut short by terminal illness — her mother died of cancer — as well as the rewards and constraints of tradition. Here, Michelle tells us about finally putting Crying in H Mart out into the world, its links with her upcoming album Jubilee, and just how much she loves Hayley Williams. Naturally.

For you, what was the difference between writing this book and songwriting?
I feel like songwriting is a more intuitive sort of process. And then writing this book was a lot of tantrum-throwing in front of a computer. It was a real confrontation with my own stupidity, I guess? Because when you want to express something in writing, there's a part of you that knows you've written the best version of it somewhere in your head, so it seems so easy to get there in a way. You have this really meaningful, beautiful thing, but you can't figure out how to articulate it in a meaningful, beautiful way. Whereas songwriting is a bit more forgiving; it's a lot of fragmented feelings that you shove off and let people interpret on their own. So [writing non-fiction] was definitely a much scarier process for me.

What are the threads between this book and your upcoming album Jubilee, if there are any?
There are actually! I think true stans will find a lot of Easter eggs in Crying in H Mart — there are a lot of borrowed lines from all three of the records. I mean, they’re all coming from the same pool of memory and feeling. [Writing the book] sometimes I’d find I’d already described a particular feeling or moment in a perfect way for me, in some music at some point before. Like there's a chapter in the book called Dark Matter about when I found out my aunt was sick. And I had written a song for my old band, Little Big League, called “Dark Matter” about that same experience. So it felt fitting to borrow that title.

I adore Jubilee’s cover art. Tell me a bit about what went into conceptualising that?
In Japan they call it hoshigaki, but they also have it in Korea: you hang lines of persimmons to dry them into soft, sweet dried fruit. And I just thought it looked so beautiful. I knew that Jubilee was an album about joy and that the colour palette was very warm and very yellow and maybe orange. I feel like my narrative has very much become someone who writes about grief and trauma and suffering; so I wanted to sort of surprise people with an album about joy. So it felt like this beautiful metaphor — this fruit that starts out very unripe and hard and unpalatable, but it sort of softens and lets its environment and time change it and mature into something that's very sweet.

What was the hardest thing for you about writing Crying in H Mart
I just felt so stupid. With writing music, if something's not working, you can always move on to another song or you can work with a new instrument. [A book] is just a big thing to manage. People aren't kidding when they say that it's a pretty gruelling, long process. When I turned in the book, I was just devastated. I was like, “This is hot garbage. You've failed yourself and your mother.” And it took maybe like six months away from it to be like, “It's okay, it's pretty good. It's fine. You did a good job.”

You said something in a recent Pitchfork interview I wanted to press you on: “I always want to be thinking about or contributing to my work. Even if I watch a movie, it has to influence my work in some way.” Would you say you’re addicted to the hustle?
Yeah, I don't know if I was always this way or not. I think that work, in addition to food, was a real way I used to anchor myself. After my mom died, I just became very obsessed. I also think part of it is that, in music, I was a little bit of a late bloomer, like I'm ancient in the music world. It just took me so long to get some semblance of recognition or success in that world that I think, once I had it, I knew how precious and easy to lose it was. I feel so lucky to get to do what I do for a living. And so to have the platform and the opportunities that I do, I just want to make sure I take advantage of them while I can.

My therapist said to me yesterday: have you ever considered just relaxing?
Maybe it comes from having an immigrant parent. My mom really instilled a kind of work ethic in me and after she passed, I really leaned into that. A lot of my bandmates and friends have been like, “it's okay to say no, it's okay to take some time to yourself.” I feel just very guilty if I'm not working. It probably feeds into some capitalist bullshit about how you feel you have to run the wheel way harder than anyone else, but maybe that's something to reckon with in like 40 years or something.

I’m curious about what you were like as a teenager now, in the book you call yourself a “disruptive clown”.
I spent a lot of time driving around in my car, doing drugs and smoking cigarettes and skipping school — to the horror of my mom. But I think I hit a stage at 16 where I was just like, "art is the only thing that transcends transience," or something; it was the only thing that made sense to me anymore. And I completely flung everything that I had been working towards to the wayside.

What had you been working towards at that point?
Like college, a full AP, IB schedule, all these extracurriculars: editor of the school newspaper, etc. I had been working towards getting into a good school since I was in third grade. Neither one of my parents went to college, so it was very important that I get into a good school, and I didn't really question it until I was like, 15, 16. And all of a sudden, I was like, "Why am I doing this? To go to more school? I hate school, I hate these people. I just want to play music and tour." It just felt like a waste of my time.

And here you are now, with everyone including Hayley Williams in hot anticipation of your new album.
I mean, what an honour. She’s a true icon so I’m glad she feels that way. Hayley Williams, if you’re reading this, please bring me on tour.

Do you think it will ruin her life in the sexiest way?
Maybe. I mean, that’s all one can really hope. If it ruins Hayley Williams’ life in the sexiest way, then I will have succeeded at something in my life.

‘Crying in H Mart: A Memoir’ is available now in the US through Penguin Random House, and 5 August in the UK via Pan Macmillan. Japanese Breakfast’s new album Jubilee is released 4 June via Dead Oceans. Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more great book recommendations.