Best-selling Korean-American author and Japanese Breakfast lead singer Michelle Zauner will break your heart into a thousand brilliant pieces. We climb aboard the wave-array of creative dazzle.
She was my champion, she was my archive. She had taken the utmost care to preserve the evidence of my existence and growth, capturing me in images, saving all my documents and possessions. She had all knowledge of my being memorised. The time I was born, my unborn cravings, the first book I read. The formation of every characteristic. Every ailment and every little victory. She observed with unparalleled interest, inexhaustible devotion. Now that she was gone, there was no one left to ask about these things. The knowledge left unrecorded with her. What remained were documents and my memories, and now it was up to me to make sense of myself, aided by the signs she left behind. How cyclical and bittersweet for a child to retrace the image of their mother. For a subject to turn back to document their archivist.
In phoning Michelle Zauner, the 33-year-old Korean-American founder, guitarist and singer of shoegaze-inspired indie pop band Japanese Breakfast, and author of the New York Times best-selling and award-winning memoir Crying in H Mart, which chronicles in ecstatic detail the relationship between herself and her Korean mother Chongmi, up to the latter’s death from pancreatic cancer at 56 in 2014, when Zauner was 25, this writer faced a dilemma unlike any he could recall in his years of interviewing: what if he started to cry as they spoke?
Reading the book on the London Tube’s Central line, he’d begun to tear up unwittingly, only to descry an Asian woman sitting three seats across to his right, smiling at him through moistening eyes herself. He pointed to the book’s cover with his finger and mouthed the words, “Have you read it?” She nodded, her smiled widened, and she made a heart sign with her index fingers and thumbs. For reasons you’ll come to understand when you read Crying in H Mart – which you absolutely cannot “not” – the gesture opened the floodgates.
Zauner, a comet of kinetic energy blessed with a wave-array of creative talent, originally wrote Crying as a short story for the New Yorker in 2018, and expanded it into the novel. She sought solace at the Korean food chain in the depths of her grief, finding it a “beautiful, holy place”, in which “parachute kids flock to find the brand of instant noodles that reminds them of home”, and where she and her mother had shared a special bond.
“I can hardly speak Korean, but in H Mart it feels like I’m fluent,” she says. “I fondle the produce and say the words aloud – chamoe melon, danmuji [and] think about the time Mom showed me how to fold the little plastic card that came inside bags of Jolly Pong.” Between visits, Zauner whets readers’ appetites with descriptions of her mother’s preparations of kimchi, jjigae, tteokbokki and other Korean delicacies that reflect the all-consuming love between them.
“Food was how my mother expressed her love,” she says. “No matter how critical or cruel she could seem – constantly pushing me to meet her expectations – I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she packed and the meals she prepared for me just the way I liked them.” So evocative are Zauner’s food recollections, several critics nominated Crying their best “cookbook” of 2019.
Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart. H Mart is a supermarket chain that specialises in Asian food. The H stands for han ah reum, a Korean phrase that roughly translates to “one arm full of groceries”. H Mart is freedom from the single-aisle “ethnic” section in regular grocery stores. You’ll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of my mom’s soy-sauce eggs and cold radish soup. Or in the freezer section, holding a stack of dumpling skins, thinking of all the hours that Mom and I spent at the kitchen table folding minced pork and chives into the thin dough. Sobbing near the dry goods, asking myself. Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?
Zauner raids a rich larder of content in the novel; mixed-race identity issues, the sense of displacement, her “Koreanness” feeling more distant, painful adolescence, forging her own path, graduating from Bryn Mawr college where she studied creative writing, starting her fledgling band (Little Big League 2011; Japanese Breakfast followed in 2013), a rush to marry before her mother’s death, and ever-present language barriers. She grows up as the only Asian-American child in her school in Eugene, Oregon, where her mother immigrated from Seoul to be with her American husband when Zauner was aged just one. “I loved our new home but I also came to resent it. There were no neighbourhood children to play with, no convenience stores or bikes within walking distance. I was stranded and lonely, an only child with no one to talk to or turn to but my mother.”
And now with the world at her feet. Zauner’s having a major moment – she appeared on The Kelly Clarkson Show in late April to talk about the book; three days after we speak she’ll appear on The Tonight Show (topically, Japanese Breakfast recorded the song “Jimmy Fallon Big” in 2016), and the moment our conversation concludes she’ll rehearse with the band for their appearance on the last show of this season’s Saturday Night Live, happening the night after Fallon. And two days after that, her name appears on the Time 100 Most Influential People list for 2022.
And she’s got a pressing deadline to meet; producers asked her to write an adaptation of Crying for a film whose soundtrack will also be by Japanese Breakfast. So eight years since Chongmi’s death, and four since her New Yorker story, Zauner’s still unable to exuviate herself from the subject. She’s due to deliver the revised screenplay this month, which she’s working on when we speak.
“I have a first draft, and I’ve been very slowly working on revisions, just because I’ve gotten so busy with having to do so many things,” she says. Her producers have read it, “their revisions were very incisive”, but she hasn’t had time to progress … “I need to have a block of time and privacy to really do revision, so I’m hoping by June I’ll have a draft to give to the studio. I’m not sure what happens after that.”
Given the surging wow-and-wake of Crying, how much arm-twisting went into her revisiting the material via a screenplay? “The hardest part and biggest challenge was how do I find creative fulfilment in a story I’ve already told. I’ve spent so many years – not just writing this book, but unpacking this part of my life, and I felt so ready to move on with my new album and creative life, so it was kind of difficult retelling the story in a different medium. The hardest part was just diving in and finding what was going to be new to excite me and see me through the drag.”
Where does the screenplay start, and why? “I knew pretty early on where I wanted it to start and when I considered adapting it, I just searched for a thesis, or a visual that could serve as a thesis for the movie.” She pinpoints her “deepest memory” as being when “my mother and I would wake up in the middle of the night, jetlagged in Korea, and raid my grandmother’s fridge.” More than being a food grab, it was also an “interesting transient phase”, where “we were both in between two worlds and time zones, and also between generations, because I was with my Mom eating her mother’s food and she was sharing and passing down that joy to me. So that felt like a very natural place to begin the feature adaptation.”
For Japanese Breakfast’s music acolytes who missed the band at this year’s Coachella music festival in April, they’ll play a 45-minute set at Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival in July. Zauner seems giddy at the prospect of returning to Asia – Japanese Breakfast have previously toured in the region, and she and husband Peter Bradley, guitarist in the band, briefly honeymooned in Hong Kong, the highlight of which was a visit to Happy Valley racecourse. “We had the greatest time and can’t wait to go back.”
Meantime, she’s buzzing at the prospect of Fuji. “Festival sets are kind of like flirting; like you’re meeting people for the first time, and you’re showcasing the shiniest parts of you, but when you play a club show it’s more like a long-term relationship with less shiny material.” With three albums to the Japanese Breakfast catalogue, she explains the band now has a greater diversity of songs, ranging from mid- tempo rockers and quiet ballads, to in-your-face and anthemic. “At Coachella, or Fuji, it’s actually really fun for me to prioritise a very energetic set, because people are seeing music all day, so you’re hopefully trying to stand out with something very extroverted.”
In all her television appearances, the brand has been playing songs off Jubilee, released last year, a more uplifting, spirited and happier album than Psychopomp (2016), the band’s debut, most of which was written by Zauner directly around the time of her mother’s death, and Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017). “Soft Sounds was about disassociating to preserve my mental health. After writing two albums and a book about grief, I felt ready to embrace feeling,” she says. “I wanted our follow up to be about joy.” That’s something else about Zauner; when she’s not topping the New York Times best-seller list, she’s spearheading the new “Asian wave” of influence in global music.
The catalyst for Zauner’s musical ambition came from a surprising source. “Nothing impacted me so profoundly as the first time I got my hands on a DVD of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs,” she says. “The front woman, Karen O, was the first icon of the music world I worshipped who looked like me. She was half-Korean and half white, with an unrivalled showmanship that obliterated the docile Asian stereotype.” Despite Zauner’s early euphoria, she worried “if there’s already one Asian girl doing this, then there’s no longer space for me”.
But Zauner’s nothing if not fiercely brave and incessantly persistent. “I came to realise that while I struggled to be good, I could excel at being courageous,” she says. “Nevertheless, Karen O made music feel more accessible, made me believe it was possible that someone like me could one day make something that meant something to other people.”
So Zauner did what she’d always done, turning to her reluctant mother and badgering her to buy a guitar. After some resistance, Chongmi relented and Zauner woke up one Christmas morning to a US$100 Yamaha acoustic. And the rest is … on October 6, in the most serendipitous moment, Japanese Breakfast will play supporting act to Karen O’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles. Writes Zauner on Instagram: “Opening for my queen @ko !!! What a dream!!!” Karen O, in announcing news of the show on her own IG, writes of Japanese Breakfast as being a “wildly gifted band”.
While Zauner’s not about to emulate Karen O’s extroverted stage presence – think deep-throating a microphone before lassoing it above the head by its cable – her personal style has become more adventurous over the last five years, something she credits to the influence of close friend and stylist CC Loo. “As we grow, and I have more opportunity, I just want to apply the same kind of thoughtfulness to every single thing that you see onstage, or associate with us. When I think of artists that I really love, like Björk, Kate Bush and David Bowie, you always associate them with creating a type of character with style, and I wanted to include that type of thoughtfulness with myself. And that’s everything. From the keyboard case, to the drumhead to what we’re wearing. As you grow and you get certain things under control you want to acquire that same type of thoughtfulness so people can see that you treat everything else the same way you do the music, and I think that slowly became important to me and in my everyday life for a long time.”
And what of her fashion credentials? “I always try to wear something colourful for shows. In this ‘Jubilee era’ [by which she means her record, not Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum album in England, though Zauner’s likely sampling both simultaneously in her head], I want everyone to think of the colour yellow typically, and that feels very much of this time. In the same way, Kate Bush is so defined by that red dress, and her ‘Wuthering Heights’ look, or Björk by the white dresses of the Vespertine era.” She says her palate has gone from a “white two-piece suit, sort of Buddhist-looking outfit” to more spacey kinds of clothes and now colourful yellows. Over Coachella’s two weekends, she wore Diesel and Asian designer Joyce Bao respectively. “I want to know when I see a photo what era we’re in” – note at all times Zauner’s irrepressible instinct to document.
And what of her surprisingly semi-formal Kelly Clarkson Show appearance? “So, The Kelly Clarkson Show was the first time I came on a show as both a guest and the music guest; it was more focused on me as a person or a writer, and I got to explore a different fashion sense. I wore Thom Browne … which isn’t something I would necessarily wear in my daily life, but I just thought it represented me more as a writer. But at home, when I’m writing, I’m literally in pyjamas.”
And writing wonder. Zauner turns a natty phrase in prose and experiencing her vivacious and direct voice, is akin to hearing individual trophy lines in songs; “Everything I wore was an argument,” she writes of her dishevelled fashion look in the face of her mother’s immaculate demeanour. “I cried comically fat tears [of her grief] … It tasted like fruit rinds soaked in murky lake water”, of an herbal tea recipe. And the vaccination mark on her mother’s arm resembles something “made by a cigarette lighter”. Indeed, so intense, witty and ecstatic is the storytelling, it plays like a 239-page chorus of catchiest good griefs.
Ask how she differentiates music writing from fiction and you get Zaunerspeak. “They’re so different. I love to perform, it’s exhilarating but also exhausting, you have to do it. You don’t learn as much about yourself during that process, it’s kind of like throwing a party. I just feel a lot stupider when I’m writing prose than I do when I’m writing music. The latter is much more forgiving and naturally collaborative and intuitive in this way, but there’s no way to escape when you’re writing prose at your computer and your thoughts. So I feel very dumb when I write and very frustrated. I think writing music is more fun.”
She explains how she got the inspiration for that sentiment. “I have a friend whose ex-partner climbs, just loves to do like long cross- country hiking and I don’t understand. I don’t like hiking, and I don’t like those type of meaningless activities, but for me writing a book is like mental Everest. And that’s what’s exciting. It’s very hard and unenjoyable, and, yes, the final summit is breathtaking, but I think in this way there are smaller mountains in writing music … more like, you know … casual hikes!”
I’m about to ask if she’s seen the trending new and quirky film … and she cuts me off before I get any further. “Everything Everywhere All At Once! Yeah, I totally loved it. And I was so afraid of not loving it and I just fell so hard in love with it, and loved Michelle Yeoh so tremendously.” One has the feeling Zauner’s ahead in everything. “I loved Daniels (the film’s directors/producers) since their music video career. I remember every time I make a treatment for a music video [yes, Zauner directs music videos too – her own and for others, but let’s save more on that story for Crying in H Mart, the movie, oh, and there’s another book, a follow-up, on a different subject], I actually always reference their treatment for ‘Turn Down for What’ [DJ Snake and Lil Jon, 2013]. It was fun seeing that element of their style in the movie.”
Sometimes my grief feels as though I’ve been left alone in a room with no doors. Every time I remember that my mother is dead, it feels like I’m colliding with a wall that won’t give. There’s no escape, just a hard surface that I keep ramming into over and over, a reminder of the immutable reality that I will never see her again.
Given how prolonged Zauner’s “grief encounter” and the reality it will resonate for decades to come, does she have a favourite line, moment, word in the book, enriched by time’s passing?
“My favourite chapter is the penultimate, when I find my mother’s kimchi fridge, and it’s like the perfect metaphor for what I’ve been trying to do. This journey with and through food and memory, and … I love that idea of turning around to archive your archivist and that was so meaningful about the book, and still is. And I’ve made my Mom into this little celebrity after she died. And, you know, she was a very beautiful woman, and so to see her photographs on television when I was talking about the book, or in magazines when articles have been written about it, it’s just sweet. Because I feel like my whole life my Mom has just been saving every small document and memory of my existence, and such a big part of motherhood is about storing things, and loving those things so deeply that to turn around and do that for the person that’s done it for you their whole life is a very moving motivation for me.” Archivists in arms, Michelle Chongmi Zauner may be Crying in H Mart, but somewhere in a different dimension, her mother is crying joyful, jubilant tears. As will you.