The chorus of “In Heaven,” the first track on Michelle Zauner’s first album as Japanese Breakfast, goes: Oh do you believe in heaven? / Like you believed in me / Oh it could be such heaven / If you believed it was real. The “you” and the “me” could be anyone, the “heaven” could be any utopia. But as revealed in Zauner’s memoir, Crying in H Mart (239 pages; Knopf), these lyrics were drafted in the aftermath of her mother’s death from pancreatic cancer and formed at a time when she was reckoning with her identity while caring for her mother.
The memoir begins with Zauner’s viral New Yorker essay, “Crying in H Mart,” a story not of grocery stores or tears necessarily, but the touchstones of diasporic and immigrant existences in America. Zauner’s relationship to H Mart is a kind of extrapolated short-hand for her relationship with her mother, Chongmi, an immigrant from South Korea. H Mart serves for an exploration of the multiple ways of knowing someone, or, of the many ways we find ourselves in relationship to our family members; that we can love and not like someone at the same time. H Mart is also where Zauner got to see her mother against the backdrop of home, or at least, see her against a backdrop of Korean food, people, and language—a stark contrast to the otherness that she, and in many ways Zauner, experienced in their suffocatingly white town.
When Zauner returns to her childhood home in Eugene, Oregon, to help care to her mom following her diagnoses, she learns how to cook the food she grew up eating. “Over medium heat, I put the ttukbaegi straight onto the burner, heated some oil, and tossed in the vegetables and meat. I added a spoonful of doenjang paste and gochugaru, then poured water on top.” Making the recipes become as important as understanding her mother, by way of recontextualizing memories of childhood and cooking love and forgiveness into kimchi jjigae, jatjuk, and galbi-tang.
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The places of Zauner’s life are just as important as the people, too. Zauner was raised seven miles from town in a secluded, woodsy house, inextricable from her mother yet trying unrelentingly to shape her identity in an America hostile to women of color and indifferent to mixed-race women:
There was something in my face that other people deciphered as a thing displaced from its origin, like I was some kind of alien or exotic fruit. ‘What are you, then?’ was the last thing I wanted to be asked at twelve because it established that I stuck out, that I was unrecognizable, that I didn’t belong. Until then, I’d always been proud of being half Korean, but suddenly I feared it’d become my defining feature and so I began to efface it.
In college and in her early twenties, Zauner distances herself from her Korean identity, leaning further into her whiteness and apparent ethnic obscurity. When she returns home at twenty-five, where the memoir spends most of its time, you can almost feel Zauner gripping tighter to her mother, to their shared past, as if desire alone could keep someone around, a hope as fruitless as believing that wishing a meal to taste good will make it so.
Crying in H Mart, much like a song, much like life, offers a kind of circularity. Zauner left Oregon to pursue music and returned to pursue her mother, leaving a final time having done both. Chongmi never wanted her daughter to be a musician, but it was her death that prompted the writing of Psychopomp, the album that launched Zauner’s music career, which then lent her a platform to write her memoir.
In the end, Crying in H Mart succeeds the way good music nearly always does but good writing doesn’t always have to. Writing has to craft a compelling narrative but music has to make you feel; Zauner’s memoir achieves both.