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Michelle Zauner navigates grief, gratitude and love in “Crying in H Mart”

November 17, 2023

Shihab Moral
THE WOMAN THAT LOVES YOU: Michelle Zauner speaks in Kresge Auditorium. Her memoir, "Crying in H Mart," landed at number two on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in its first week.

Michelle Zauner isn’t done grieving.

The bestselling writer, who also makes music as lead singer and guitarist of indie pop outfit Japanese Breakfast, lost her mother to pancreatic cancer in 2014. Nine years later, Zauner said she still carries that grief with her—now, with gratitude.

Zauner’s memoir, “Crying in H Mart,” is an emotional chronicle of her relationship with her mother, from Zauner’s youth to her college years at Bryn Mawr and through her young adult life, when she navigated her mother’s illness and death.

Last Tuesday, Zauner visited Bowdoin, joining students for a Q&A session in Moulton Union’s Main Lounge and speaking to a packed Kresge Auditorium for “An Evening with Michelle Zauner” as this fall’s Kenneth V. Santagata Memorial Lecture. After the event, Zauner signed copies of her book for the students and community members in attendance.

Each semester, the Santagata Lecture welcomes to campus a trailblazing figure in the arts, social sciences or humanities. Zauner now joins the series’ luminaries, which in recent years has welcomed cartoonist and graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel and photographer and writer Teju Cole.

Professor of Asian Studies and English Belinda Kong, who hosted Tuesday evening’s discussion alongside Kyubin Kim ’22, said Zauner’s visit was a highlight of the ongoing Asian American Reckonings initiative.

Students in Kong’s Asian American Literature course read “Crying in H Mart” this semester, and Kong said that the book is emblematic of a shift in Asian American literature—and in nonfiction.

“People are actually validating their own experiences rather than feeling like … it’s not worthy of rising to the level of serious literature,” Kong said.

Zauner said that “Crying in H Mart” took five years to write. The book is based on her 2018 essay in The New Yorker of the same name.

While Zauner’s mother is Korean, and a connection to Korean-American identity through her mother is central to the book, Zauner said that “Crying in H Mart” is no more about identity than any other book, a point that resonated with Kong.

“Equity and justice is really for writers in the margins to not have to just write about identity,” Kong said. “If they want to write just about grief and loss … they should be allowed time and plenitude.”

While Zauner may not have written her book about identity, readers connected to the elements of being Korean-American present in the memoir.

“In high school, I didn’t read anything by an Asian-American author, and it’s really sick for me to read something and be, like, wow,” Daniel Chi ’24, who hosted the student Q&A, said. “I recognize all of these things, even the H Marts she was talking about. I’ve been to them. These are places that mean a lot to me too.”

Food is a central theme of the book: The H Marts referenced by Chi and the book’s title reference the supermarket chain which specializes in Asian cuisine. Kim identified Zauner’s writing about food as a way to intimately bind personal experiences and relationships with broader contexts.

“What’s interesting is that food writing is actually a very subtle way to talk about larger political, cultural, social issues without naming it explicitly,” Kim said.

Kim added that the book’s intensely personal writing allows it to resonate powerfully with readers from different backgrounds who connect with different parts of Zauner’s lived experience.

Zauner acknowledged that “Crying in H Mart” is deeply personal, something she attributed to her tendency to share personal parts of her life with people.

While Zauner’s visit centered around her book, many students first knew her as the voice behind Japanese Breakfast. David Gelinas ’25, who attended both the Q&A and the evening event, said that Zauner’s music was formative for him in high school.

“[Japanese Breakfast] was definitely a big initial influence on my music taste,” Gelinas said.

The group has released three albums: “Psychopomp” (2016),  “Soft Sounds from Another Planet” (2017) and most recently, “Jubilee” (2021), which was nominated for two Grammy awards.

MGM’s Orion Pictures is now adapting “Crying in H Mart” into a major motion picture. The film will be directed by Will Sharpe, who starred as Ethan Spiller in the most recent season of HBO’s “The White Lotus.”

Zauner said that she was initially reluctant to have her book adapted into a movie, but she decided to write the screenplay so she could ensure the film is an accurate representation of her memoir. As Japanese Breakfast, Zauner will also contribute to the adaptation’s soundtrack.

In addition to working on the soundtrack, Zauner said that Japanese Breakfast is looking to release another album in the future. She said that “Jubilee” was driven by joy after the melancholic overtones of “Psychopomp” and “Soft Sounds from Another Planet” and joked that the group’s next release would probably be gloomier.

Zauner added that the fame she’s gained in recent years has made her creative work harder.

“I’m in my flop era,” she quipped.

Soon, Zauner plans to travel to South Korea for an extended time to deepen her Korean language skills and said she plans to write her next book about that experience. She said that her mother told her that she could be fluent if she spent a full year in the country.

In continuing to carry grief with her, Zauner said she continues to hold gratitude—and love—for her mother. Zauner said that now, she feels lucky to experience her grief as a reminder of a love she experienced so deeply—and is even now learning to understand.

Marc Rosenthal contributed to this report.


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