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‘Crying in H Mart will have you crying on your commute’: a review of Michelle Zauner’s debut book

In this heart-wrenching memoir, singer and guitarist Michelle Zauner, of the indie pop-rock band Japanese Breakfast, recounts her grief over losing her Korean mother to stage IV pancreatic cancer at age twenty-five. Extremely raw, Zauner perfectly encapsulates the emotional journey of losing a parental figure. Crying in H Mart reads as a therapeutic act – a way for Zauner to process her grief and explore latent feelings of anger and guilt often concealed within mother-daughter relationships. Though obviously devastating, Zauner’s frequent flashbacks and heartwarming interludes provide moments of respite and pockets of comic relief that help break up the tragedy and propel readers forward in the narrative.

As a Korean-American, Zauner naturally explores this loss through the relationship between second-generation children and their first-generation parents. Zauner describes her mother’s coarseness – ‘She was not what I’d refer to as a ‘Mommy-Mom’’, she summarises. This fact sometimes alienated and upset Zauner growing up, making her envious of her friend’s comparatively easy-going mother. This, combined with their cultural differences and Zauner’s teenage mental health struggles, led to their relationship becoming very strained during Zauner’s early adulthood. Her mother’s sudden diagnosis shocked Zauner into confronting her guilty conscience, spurring on an honest reflection on her mother’s faults as well as her own. However, with the benefit of age and maturity, Zauner is able to meditate on these memories from a place of compassion rather than volatile defensiveness. She learns to understand her mother’s fierceness and strength as its own form of love, expressed through alternative acts of domestic care, such as cooking and meticulous cleaning.

Much as food is the cultural glue that bonds the pair, it is also the glue binding this narrative together. Most of Zauner’s key memories and important emotional revelations take place whilst cooking or eating. Mastering various Korean dishes becomes a way for Zauner to inwardly connect with her mother and her culture, and outwardly demonstrate her affection as the cancer progresses in what becomes a tender kind of role reversal. In her methodical and mouth-watering descriptions of traditional Korean meals, Zauner shows readers how food can be a universal love language, capable of transcending even the widest cultural chasms.

Zauner also illustrates how losing a parent of colour can affect one’s self-perception of their mixed-race identity. She says her mother’s presence was a physical form of validation for her own existence, making sense of her appearance to those for whom Zauner’s Korean identity was not immediately obvious; ‘without my mother, I no longer had a right to those parts of my face’. Zauner ultimately shows the many layers to her grief; how this one loss is wrapped up in a complex cultural web.

This memoir is not just for fans of Japanese Breakfast, but is accessible enough for anyone to read. Beautiful and cathartic, Crying in H Mart will have you crying on your commute. For those who have already lost a loved one, Zauner will sympathise with you and hold your hand through the process. For those yet to experience this pain, Zauner’s memoir will remind you to approach your loved ones with patience and empathy. Crying in H Mart shows us all that the time we have with others is precious, so perhaps take a moment now to answer any unread messages and schedule a visit home.

‘Thrown as we were on opposite sides of a fault line – generational, cultural, linguistic – we wandered lost without a reference point, each of us unintelligible to the other's expectations, until these past few years when we had just begun to unlock the mystery, carve the psychic space to accommodate each other, appreciate the differences between us, linger in our refracted commonalities. Then, what would have been the most fruitful years of understanding were cut violently short, and I was left alone to decipher the secrets of inheritance without its key.’ – Michelle Zauner, Crying in H Mart, p. 169

Author: Michelle Zauner

Published: 05/08/2021

Publisher: Picador, Pan Macmillan

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