It’s a bit unfair to the rest of us that Michelle Zauner—the writer and musician known as Japanese Breakfast—is as multi-talented as she is.
Her dream-pop lets you float away in an ambient haze. Her writing pulls you between heartbreak and hunger as she weaves together food, loss, family, and identity. She’s proven her skill at directing her own music videos. In the coming months, Zauner will release three long-in-the-works projects: her memoir, Crying in H Mart, which hits shelves on April 20; her third album, Jubilee, out June 4; and her soundtrack for the video game Sable, due later this year.
What first drew me to Zauner was her writing. In 2016, after releasing Japanese Breakfast’s debut album Psychopomp, Zauner won Glamour’s essay contest with the piece “Love, Loss, and Kimchi.” She described the death of her mother from cancer two years before; how she’d grown up mixed race in the Pacific Northwest with food as her main connector to Korean culture; and how, eventually, she brought back memories of her mother by learning Korean cooking through videos from YouTube personality Maangchi. (In 2019, Maangchi and Zauner came together in the VICE series Close to Home, which Zauner hosted.) After the essay drew industry attention, Zauner began writing what would become her memoir.
The title chapter of that memoir is an essay titled “Crying in H Mart,” the Korean American supermarket chain. The essay calls to mind specific, pleasant memories (Zauner likens the rice cakes she’d share with her mom to “splitting a packing peanut that dissolved like sugar on your tongue,” for example) and puts words to the complicated feelings of loss. After seeing a Korean grandmother eating in the food court, she writes: “Why is she here slurping up spicy jjamppong noodles and my mom isn’t?”
Finding moments of beauty amid years of pain, Crying in H Mart is a beautiful and heavy read that reconciles the taut relationship Zauner once had with her mother with the love she continues to feel for her. It bridges the disconnect Zauner felt with Korean culture to a nuanced understanding of her own Korean Americanness. It is as much about food as it is about grief and love. Zauner talked to VICE about the book, the creative process behind her writing and music, and food as a source of comfort. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
VICE: A big theme of Crying in H Mart is finding comfort through food and cooking in difficult times. What has your relationship to food looked like over this pandemic year?
Michelle Zauner: It’s definitely changed over the time. There was a chapter of the pandemic where I was going all out for themed meals and watching a variety of YouTube vloggers that gave a window into their world of cooking. There was a period where I just ate like, Eggo waffles, just a lot of Taco Bell, because I was like, what is the point? There was a period of time where I was like, I'm gonna emerge with a six-pack, and I'm pretty over that now, too.
What types of YouTube food content have you been watching?
I'm a big fan of mukbang, [the Korean video trend in which hosts eat large amounts of food while talking to their audience on platforms like YouTube or Twitch]. I really love Dorothy; she’s a very small Korean woman who is really good at eating very spicy foods. I like the style of eating that she has. I also got really weirdly into the Headbanger’s Kitchen. He's this Indian guy [who’s] really into metal and keto. One thing that gave me a lot of comfort during the pandemic was these YouTube people.
The book is called Crying in H Mart—have you been able to find solace in Asian grocery stores this year?
It's stressful to go to the grocery store right now; you can't linger in all of its glory and feel a bunch of stuff and smell things the way that you used to. But I still definitely go to H Mart probably like once or twice a week to get my groceries. It's a very special place to me.
Your approach to food writing is very visceral and evocative. How did you learn to write about food?
I read a lot of food memoirs to prepare. When you have a very obvious theme, you start paying attention to those kinds of scenes in books more often. [Food] is such a naturally sensory-rich thing that I found it to be one of the easiest things to write about in the book. I love Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour. I love MFK Fisher's food writing; The Gastronomical Me is one of my favorite books. Nora Efron's Heartburn, Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone. Chang-rae Lee also has a lot of really amazing food writing in the New Yorker. A Moveable Feast has some really beautiful food writing in it. A lot of cookbooks also have incredible food writing, even though I feel like a lot of cookbook authors don't necessarily identify with being writers.
What did you learn as you wrote this book?
I'm a pretty quick worker and I thought that maybe it would be a little bit easier and faster for me [laughs]. I came to realize there's no real skipping steps. I also think I was so hard on myself. I was really devastated when I turned the book in; I really thought I had let myself and my mom down when I turned it in. I feel like it's a really natural part of writing: You lose perspective, and you have to let it go sometimes in order to come back to it and see that it's pretty alright.
I had a big thing where I was like, This is the best you can do right now. And even if you want it to be more beautiful than it is, you've spent enough time on this. That’s what art is, and I had to really console myself. The more art that you make, the more critical and unsatisfied you become.
You’ve said that during college, you couldn't write about your own experiences because you felt that you had to preface them with your identity and race. The book is obviously a memoir, so what shifted your perspective on that?
I studied creative writing in college and I took every fiction course that my professor was offering. I wanted to write “Kmart realist” stories of gritty, working-class people and how they hurt each other [laughs]. In short fiction, especially, you have like, eight to 12 pages. I didn't want to waste time talking about identity, because it wasn't really interesting to me at the time. I was interested in telling stories: just stories, not identity politics stories.
When my mom died, I just stopped thinking about it, because I was obsessed with what had happened and it took over my life. I found myself really drawn to thinking about my culture and my identity, and this part of me that was sort of lost. It was just an all-encompassing thought.
What do you want to see more of when we talk about Asian American identity, or is there anything that frustrates you with how we talk about Asian American identity now?
The more stories, the better. I feel like I get down on myself a little bit, because I've seen some discourse like, “We can't have any Asian American writing without talking about the mother and having that be really traumatic.” Obviously, I have this book about my mom—dying—and it's a lot of intense trauma. I guess this is frustrating to me because it's like, that's [my] experience. I don't want to feel like a stereotype for writing about that.
Yeah, there is this level of gatekeeping that happens within the Asian American community.
I think especially because I'm a mixed race person, it makes me really sad and uncomfortable and angry, and I wish that would stop.
Were there other tropes or stereotypes that you felt yourself trying to avoid as you were writing?
I was definitely worried that people were going to be like, “She just had a ‘Tiger Mom’ or whatever, that kind of stereotype.” Certainly, there were parts of that stereotype that my mom maybe occupied. My mom really pushed me and was very critical in some stereotypical ways, but also just like, that's my honest experience. I feel like I presented my mom's character as a very multidimensional person.
I've gotten a lot of shit about being married to a white person, and that meaning that I can't speak up about issues in the Asian American community. I was definitely nervous about that, too, because that's been an incredibly hurtful experience that I've had online. That's pretty unfair, especially if people read the book and see how much my partner was there for me during this very difficult time.
How do you quiet all of those thoughts about how people will react?
Some days, I'm like, fuck them, and I feel really full of confidence. And some days I’m like, you're right, and just in a ball. It's just constant agony all the time [laughs].
You’re wrapping up several big projects at once. Is rest in the future for you?
Maybe it's like active resting. My brain can go somewhat on autopilot a bit if we get to go on tour again, and I would love to just enjoy life for a little bit. Part of enjoying life is being this active sponge and having observations and interacting with art and reading again. These three projects that I've worked on for like, three years are all coming out at the same time.
I'm ready to figure out what my next thing is. In a way, I felt so creatively constipated during the pandemic, because I was about to come out with all this stuff. The album got pushed back, so it felt like I couldn't write another record until this one came out. I couldn't write another book until this one came out. It'll just make itself a little more clear to me once these things are out.
When you’re able to tour again, where are you the most excited to visit?
I really miss Oregon. There's this fish and chips place in Eugene called Newman's that's an outdoor window that I love. There's this place called Cafe Yumm! that’s this weird, hippie rice bowl thing with nutritional yeast sauce that I grew up eating. I love oysters in Seattle, Vancouver, and the Bay Area. I love all of the Koreatown restaurants in Los Angeles. I love Chicago hot dogs. Every year, we go to South By, and we used to always get tacos in Texas and I miss all the delicious avocados and margaritas there. You just have your staple things that you indulge in every city, and I miss that feeling a lot.