[Eye interview] Food as a great connector


Singer, author and director Michelle Zauner shares how she found a connection to her mother, Korean culture while cooking her mother’s dishes

Michelle Zauner speaks during a Zoom interview with The Korea Herald on April 28.

A young woman, born to a Korean mother and a white father, stands in a Korean supermarket chain crying as she gazes at the exposed side dishes her late mother used to prepare for her. It’s the scene that opens Michelle Zauner’s bestselling memoir, “Crying in H Mart,” and one that many Korean Americans will have no trouble imagining.

For Zauner, food formed an unbreakable bond between her and her mother. Her mother made Korean dishes for her Korean-born daughter who moved to Eugene, Oregon, with her parents when she was 9 months old. When her mother fell ill with pancreatic cancer, Zauner tried to cook Korean food for her mother.

When her mother’s close Korean friend rejects Zauner’s attempts to cook for her mother, it seems like the friend refuses to acknowledge Zauner’s Korean side.

This feeling of being invisible, or being denied to be seen, weighs heavily on Zauner. She feels this when she visits her mother’s family in Korea or lives in a college town in Oregon. In Seoul, Koreans comment on his foreignness – his face is not Korean enough. In Oregon, she’s considered an outsider and people ask, “Where are you really from?”

It’s a subject Zauner explores through food in his memoir, also available in Korean from Munhakdongne.

2021 has been a big year for Zauner, author, musician and director. “Crying in H Mart” debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list, and his third album with indie rock band Japanese Breakfast, “Jubilee,” released that year. , was subsequently nominated for Best Alternative Music Album and Best New Artist at this year’s Grammy Awards.

“I feel like I kind of planted a lot of seeds and they all started sprouting and thriving at the same time,” Zauner said of his recent successes during an interview with The Korea Herald. via Zoom on April 28. years working on this record and this book, and I think it was just the right time,” she said.

The book is also available as an audiobook narrated by the author herself. It works wonderfully for memoirs, her voice giving immediacy and intimacy to a very personal story.

When Zauner speaks Korean words and phrases – mostly food and often used everyday Korean phrases – the pitch of his voice changes very slightly. Her deep, smoky voice takes on a softer, almost feminine quality when she pronounces “eomma,” which means “mother” in Korean.

“That makes sense,” Zauner said, when pointed out. “Probably stuck in the Korean that I learned in my youth,” she said. The baby of her family, she spoke to her family that way too, she explained.

“Crying in H Mart” is the story of a strained mother-daughter relationship that evolves over time and changing circumstances.

“I think my mom and I had a very rocky relationship. We were, I think, simultaneously so close and devoted to each other, but also always at odds,” she said. “That’s so much the subject of the book. We really struggled to understand each other through a different generation, a different culture and a different language,” she said.

The struggle is often told – an independent daughter and a protective mother who only wants the best for her daughter. “So we fought a lot, especially during my teenage years,” Zauner said. “Our relationship was just starting to change and we were starting to really like each other as adults and friends for the first time in our early twenties. And that’s when she got sick,” said her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died six months later in 2014.

Her memoir began as a “cuter, lighthearted essay” that focused on her cooking experience with Maangchi, a well-known Korean food YouTuber.

“I was working my first day of work in an office and I was very unsatisfied creatively. And I had just finished this record and I felt like I had so much to do with my grief and make sense of it. to what had happened,” Zauner said, recalling how his writing began. “And while writing this essay on Maangchi, I realized there was so much more to say, because, you have to understand, my whole life has changed. At 25, I was just very close to sickness and death,” she said.

“My nuclear family fell apart. I had no siblings to identify with. I had no peers to identify with. It was as if no one could understand the extent of this great tragedy in my life,” she explained. “I felt like no one knew what I had seen and what I had experienced. And I desperately needed to explain to people how I felt.

The resulting essay, “Love, Loss and Kimchi,” won Glamor magazine’s essay contest in 2016. Literary agents began reaching out, but her music career was taking off, and she went on tour with Japanese Breakfast for the next two years.

Michelle Zauner performs with Japanese Breakfast (Michelle Zauner)

Her band first performed in Seoul in 2017 and she stayed in the city for six weeks from December 2017 to January 2018. It was around this time that she started writing the first six chapters of her book.

“The first chapter was ‘Crying in H-Mart,'” she said.

When the New Yorker magazine said it wanted to publish some of her writing, she edited the first chapter and sent it. “And it exploded,” she said.

Alfred A. Knopf purchased the publishing rights to the book at an auction, and when the book was released in 2021, it immediately became a bestseller. Zauner did not expect such a response. “I really wrote this book for myself in the same way I think I’ve always written albums. My literary career took off in a way that my music career didn’t, so I was really , really surprised,” she said.

What explains the dazzling success of the memoirs of a 33-year-old man?

“I think maybe it’s just the right time. I think there hasn’t been a book written by someone who straddles two cultures and increasingly that kind of upbringing is very common,” she said. Growing up biracial in a small town, her parents said she would meet more people like her when she grew up; in the meantime, she grew up feeling isolated and alone. “That kind of experience is shared by a lot of people who have never read a story from that perspective before,” she said.

The universality of the subjects treated in the book – loss and grief, the connection between food and culture, a love-hate relationship between mother and daughter – explains the wide appeal of the book. “It hit a sweet spot of all these very universal things presented in a new way. And I got really lucky, I guess,” she said.

His mother and many relatives on his mother’s side having passed away, Zauner finds comfort in hearing the Korean language in music or in movies, or simply seeing older women on Korean reality TV perform certain gestures that would recall his mother.

For her second book, which she plans to work on over the next two years, Zauner would like to live in Korea for a year and study the language. “I don’t think I’ll ever really feel Korean without being fluent in the language. And I don’t know if I’ll ever learn Korean unless I make it some kind of project and live there,” she said.

“But I’m sure that by doing this project, I’ll learn that I’ll never really feel like Korean.”

“Crying in H Mart” is being made into a movie by Orion Pictures and Zauner is keen to cast his favorite Korean actor, Kim Su-mi, a veteran actor known for his home cooking. Zauner ran into the actor while watching “Two Days, One Night,” a reality show, on his cousin’s recommendation.

Watching her cooking videos, Zauner learned that the actress bonded with her late parents when she was very young, learning to cook the dishes her mother made.

“I really, really hope she might consider a role in the movie ‘Crying in H Mart,'” she said.

As for herself playing a character in the film, “Absolutely not,” Zauner said.

“I would love the opportunity to write at least one original song to try to, you know, get my Oscar nomination,” she laughed.

Meanwhile, Zauner will be in Korea this summer with Japanese Breakfast, performing at the Incheon Pentaport Rock Festival.

By Kim Hoo-ran ([email protected])

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