Michelle Zauner on Korean Cooking, the Ties That Bind, and Crying in H Mart

Photo credit: Barbora Mrazkova

Photo credit: Barbora Mrazkova

Before her viral essay grappling with the death of her mother and Korean American identity, Michelle Zauner was best known for her work as a musician—she’s released two albums and toured the world with her Philadelphia-based band, Japanese Breakfast. (The band’s third album, Jubilee, is set for release this June.) Her book Crying in H Mart: A Memoir, which is out today, channels the ethos of her songwriting while probing the nature of grief and what happens when the string that ties us to an identity is suddenly severed.

“You’re a sensitive person, and you lean into quiet ordinary moments and conflate them with meaning,” she says. “That is the nature of what I do, I think. It’s always made sense to kind of rock in and out of these different mediums.”

The opening chapter of the book is her 2018 essay for The New Yorker — and the memoir’s namesake. After the deaths of her grandmother, aunt, and mother over the course of six years, she seeks out a kind of cultural and self preservation among the aisles of H Mart, a Korean American grocery store chain. She writes in the essay about “crying in the freezer section, holding a stack of dumpling skins” and wonders, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” The store became a kind of third space for her to process with cooking Korean food as a life raft, which feels even more present after a year spent indoors, cooking for ourselves, surrounded by death and collective grief.

ELLE.com spoke with Zauner about her literary influences, the meals that got her through quarantine, and avoiding cliche.

How do you compare living in Brooklyn to Philly, especially in the past year living in isolation?

I feel like most of my friends are in Philly. I was really looking forward to doing press in New York this year because I always take the Chinatown bus and spend the whole day there. Now it’s all on Zoom. I do really love New York. I feel like there are more Asian restaurants. Philly has a sick food scene, I don’t want to diss it at all. But New York is so much bigger and there are more options.

You’ve written award-winning essays and the book’s eponymous chapter was first published in The New Yorker. What was the driving force behind expanding your essays into a memoir?

I think with any art making, there’s a sense of urgency that you have for people to understand you. I really felt like no one had understood, appropriately, what I had been through. I really wanted to just air my grievances. I wanted to bare my wounds. I wanted people to really know what I endured because it almost didn’t feel real. I think that I needed to really dive into that in order for me to really understand what happened. There was a lot of really hard stuff to write. There was also a lot of joy that I received from writing it. A big incentive to me was getting to dive into the memories that I had of my mother before she got sick and what our relationship was like before this horrible thing took over our lives. I was really looking forward to living in that for a while.

With a record and book coming out this year, how did you tackle writing both of them? What is your headspace going into prose versus music?

I had probably already submitted my first draft and was just waiting three to four months to get feedback from my editor. It was a good clearing for me to dive into a record and take my mind off of it for some time. I’ve never really been able to have that amount of perspective on an art project, which is so rewarding and really important. I would love to incorporate that into all of my creative work from now on.

I’ve written records since I was 16. I already knew that I had the capacity to complete a large creative project, the kind of structure and balance between creativity and regimen and seeing projects to the ends. I had the confidence that I knew how to do that.

The way you describe food feels almost technical in how you navigate through the vocabulary of food and cooking something new. Did you have any literary or culinary references during your writing process?

I really love MFK Fisher’s food writing, and obviously Anthony Bourdain’s food writing is exceptional, in particular A Cook’s Tour. I really love the short story that he writes about revisiting the coastal town in France of his childhood and the memories that he has of his father. I liked Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone and I reread Julie & Julia, which I think is sweet. In the beginning, I was like, “My book is gonna be like Korean Maangchi and Michelle!” but it slowly became so much more than that. I liked Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat. I read a lot of food memoir to get a better sense of how that works to try to make it my own. I love food. It’s been such a huge part of my life. In a way, I think I didn’t even realize it until I wrote this book. Food brings me this great joy.

Towards the end of the memoir, you write, “I had thought fermentation was controlled death, left alone, a head of cabbage molds and decomposes….So it is not quite controlled death because it enjoys a new life together.” It felt like a culmination of the entire book because it encapsulates your grieving process at that point through food writing.

It’s a lot of agonizing over the computer for a really long time. When I finished the book, I was so disappointed with myself. I felt like my stupidity was a ceiling that I was bumping up against. I could picture this book and what I wanted to say and the way that a smart person would say it. When I turned it in, I couldn’t work on it any longer. I have spent almost nine months away from it now. I reread it, and [I] did pretty good.

I think many writers feel that way. Did you feel that way after your first or final draft?

As a musician, a lot of my music making is very intuitive. I demo stuff out a lot, and in some ways, you get that perspective of having a demo that’s mostly composition that you then take to arrange and produce. It’s sort of similar to the editing process, but there’s so much less going on in a book. There are fewer salves beyond confronting the same thing over and over again.

I don’t know if Maangchi would think of herself as a writer. A lot of people who write cookbooks probably don’t think of themselves as writers, but they have such a deep connection with food. I think a lot of those stories are so meaningful. I have a lot of Korean cookbooks. I loved reading their relationship to food. They’ll have a little introduction, and I think that’s some of the best food writing.

I bumped into [my friend’s younger brother] randomly at a bar, and I was with a couple of friends. His girlfriend had just had a sudden death at a gym. He confided in me about this loss and his grief and he had gotten really into baking. He knew I lost my mom, and I really turned to Korean cooking. He was talking about fermentation and sourdough starters and how it’s like controlled death. That shook me when he had said that. The more that I read into it, it’s not really controlled death. It’s not dead. If anything, it keeps it alive. You have to really care for memory and care for a culture. Otherwise, it’s gonna die. I think so much of the book is also about this fear of losing my culture because it felt like I didn’t have a right to it anymore. Part of that is finding out how you alone can care for it without a person who innately attaches you to it.

You address identity throughout your memoir. I think what is so refreshing about your book is that it’s so much about preserving your cultural identity without dwelling on it. Did you intend to write about it in this way?

As an Asian American, I don’t think I started reading Asian American literature outside of Amy Tan until I was 28 and preparing for this book in a way. I know that’s what people want us to do right now. Ultimately, Asian Americans are going to be the biggest critics of Asian Americans. In one sense, we absolutely love to see it. I’m hesitant to even critique writing that I think isn’t great because I’m so happy to see it in the world. As it becomes more oversaturated, we’re going to be able to parse what’s really good and what just is. That was really important to me. I wanted to touch on some of these things just so it wasn’t uncomfortably not present, but that’s not entirely what the story is about.

I also think that you can comment on those things without explicitly talking about them. I don’t think anyone needs to read another “lunchbox story” at this point. Yeah, I definitely had one, but I don’t think it needs to really be in there because it becomes a cliche.

Yeah, I think we’re all tired of that.

I think part of it is because of my education, or lack thereof. I grew up with an immigrant parent. Neither one of my parents went to college. I felt really limited. I was never going to be like Marilynne Robinson or Proust. When I was in college, I took every fiction course that was available and every creative writing course except for nonfiction. Even the super-sharp Annie Proulx and Lorrie Moore’s of the world, they don’t look like me.

Photo credit: Ethan Miller - Getty Images

Photo credit: Ethan Miller – Getty Images

I always felt like if I wrote nonfiction, I would have to spend three pages talking about my identity, parents, and how I was raised. All I wanted to do was just tell the story. I think that that’s just what I tried to do. I don’t think I would have ever written this book if my mom hadn’t passed away and all the things I had been running from, not because I was afraid of it, it was just that I was disinterested. It was never important to me. When my mom passed away, it suddenly became important to me, and it became at the forefront of my mind. So it made sense to write about it. I never wanted to just write about it for the sake of writing about it.

I’m also an only child, so I related to a lot of the guilt about family, but also what I found interesting was all the familial relationships, not just with your mom but with her sisters and how dominant family is in Asian culture, like finding community and collective caring when needed.

Yeah, it’s funny, I was just talking about this. I didn’t think much about it because that was just how I grew up. I was telling my mother in law that it’s pretty normal in Asian households that kids live with their parents until they get married. It was so different from my upbringing in Eugene and a fun juxtaposition. I loved going there so much because I lived such a quiet, lonely childhood. Then I got to be around all of these women and my cousin. There’s so much space where I grew up, and it was so lonely in some ways.

I think also as an only child, you have this added pressure that when your parents get older and sick, it’s only you. It’s your worst nightmare. Having to confront that so early was a really horrific experience. I feel really lucky that that’s a part of that culture because there are a lot of people who aren’t as lucky and aren’t in financial positions in which they have people who can dedicate 24 hours a day to caretaking. Even with all of that help, I felt so helpless and overwhelmed all the time.

Have you learned to cook anything new in the past year given all the time at home? Do you have a personal Julie & Julia “deboning a duck” moment?

I did try my hand at Ganjang Gejang which is my all time favorite Korean food. It’s raw soy sauce-marinated crab. It’s kind of intimidating. You have to freeze and dismember these crabs. It did not turn out very well. I really love making Jajangmyeon noodles or Korean Chinese fusion. They’re decadent, fatty black bean noodles that are really easy to make. It’s definitely a staple of mine.

I’ve been wanting to make Maangchi’s Doenjang recipe which takes a year to ferment. It’s like her “deboning a duck,” I guess. I have failed. I failed at a lot of things, but a lot of things have gone pretty well for me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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