Book Content Warning: Death
The cover of Crying in H Mart: A Memoir shone bright red on my desk, an alarm amongst my planner and pencils. The book beckoned with an urgency that intimidated me and reminded me of the review deadline fast approaching. Anxious because I was running on a tight schedule, I started the memoir that morning, hoping to finish it in a week. Red book in hand, I dived into the first chapter. Then the second, and the third. In what felt like the speed of light, the memoir’s 222 pages flew by, and I was turning the last page by sunset that day—completely enamoured with Zauner’s storytelling.
Storyteller indeed, in Crying in H Mart, Zauner charts her journey into grief and the unknown which enveloped her world after her mother’s death from cancer. The memoir opens with an essay titled “Crying in H Mart,” which was originally published in The New Yorker in 2018. The article went viral and became the seed that has grown into Zauner’s eponymous memoir. The first chapter presents the very essence of Zauner’s story: discovering who she is without her mother.
Being two halves of different things can often make you feel less of a whole. Zauner explains this perfectly: her mom’s death is doubly devastating because it also acts as a disconnect to her Korean heritage. In the face of such tragedy, Zauner must simultaneously confront the loss of her mother and possibly her Korean roots.
With enough grief, confusion, and pain on her plate to fuel an eight-course-meal, Zauner digests these emotions with a love and light so rare in memoirs of loss. Like a lighthouse in the distance, Zauner’s raw and unwavering narration becomes the guide that takes readers through her sea of loss toward healing. Her humor and earnestness shines through her pain, making this piece read as if Zauner was an old friend catching up over a meaningful brunch, rather than a reader simply studying a distant recount of events.
To start, she describes shopping in H Mart, a Korean supermarket, to be her undoing. Her identity crisis poses the dilemma she faces: “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?”
It was always food she clutched at for access to her mother, even when cancer was stealing her away, and it is food through which Zauner reclaims her culture. Her choice to center her grief and heritage around cultural food proves to be a distinctively relatable experience for all readers, no matter their culture. Zauner’s relationship with food as a metaphor for her own grief is simple enough to absorb and yet, it is also rich in emotion and intricacy. It is in this balance of flavors that Zauner succeeds in articulating her pain and healing through the revival of her culture—through food.
Perhaps the most impressive feat of Crying in H Mart is its attention to detail. Zauner weaves through her thirty-two years of life with the spotlight on the most formative memories of her and her mother’s bond. She sways back and forth from the recent past to recollections of long ago, telling anecdotes from two years ago and then twenty years with such a natural hand. Instead of the jumbled storytelling one might expect from jumping between different timelines, Zauner’s fluid narration perfectly illustrates the butterfly effects throughout her life. She conveys how the small, seemingly insignificant details of her childhood have shaped her essence. Indeed, she spares no detail; from her father’s unfaithful affair to her mother’s grisly cancer wounds, Zauner narrates with such endearing veracity that readers cannot help but feel personally invested in each sentence.
In fact, Asian readers might find this book hitting just a little too close to home as Zauner puts into words the layered nuances of growing up Asian in a Western-centric world. Through her relationship with food and consequently, her culture, she runs a powerful commentary on the overwhelming whiteness that permeates every attempt to be Korean in White America. She details the repercussions of living in this cultural context, including the yearning to fit in and speak English becoming larger than learning your mother tongue. The regret comes later in life, as Zauner articulates the familiar shame that washes over upon realizing you cannot cook the very dishes you grew up eating. Zauner’s journey to reconnect with her roots are clumsy and determined, as she grasps at what is left of her Korean half and rebuilds it delicately but surely.
Though grief often has a martyrizing effect on the dead, Zauner’s head is cloud-free. She acknowledges her mother’s flaws together with her triumphs, as well as all the complexities of her family. While this memoir is an ode to her mother’s eclipsing love, Zauner also describes reaping the smothering effects of such overwhelming devotion. She makes her recount of her mother multifaceted, explaining in depth how the burdens of motherly love stifled her. Despite this, Zauner’s memoir remains true as a celebration of her mother. It makes clear that after all, her mother “was guilty only of caring too much.” Once again, Zauner manages to balance the struggle with the solace, the sour with the sweet.
While Zauner’s life experiences swing like a pendulum between the good and bad, the memoir grounds itself in its tone. It is sad and honest, but poignant and hopeful. There is no dramatic concluding flourish to this piece—rather, in the last chapters, Zauner simply steps back to show the puzzle pieces that clicked into place after her loss. It becomes clear that her mother’s passing was integral for her to grow her Korean connection independently—she needed to form her own traditions after decades of only relying on her mother. Undoubtedly, Zauner’s debut book—a delicate concoction of food, love, and culture—is humble and grounding, and will force you to be present with your emotions by showing you hers.
MICHELLE ZAUNER is best known as a singer and guitarist who creates dreamy, shoegaze-inspired indie pop under the name Japanese Breakfast. She has won acclaim from major music outlets around the world for releases like Psychopomp (2016) and Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017).
Crying in H Mart: A Memoir can be purchased here.