After her mother passed away from cancer, musician Michelle Zauner could not remember what she looked like before she fell ill.
Zauner’s 2021 memoir Crying in H Mart is meant to be a testament to the beautiful moments shared with her mother before her illness, Zauner told a rapt audience at Stamp Student Union on Thursday.
SEE’s Back to School Lecture featured Zauner in a Q&A where she discussed her first book, her band Japanese Breakfast and her future endeavors.
Crying in H Mart is based on an essay Zauner wrote shortly after her mother died titled “Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi,” which won Glamour Magazine’s 11th essay contest in 2016.
Originally, Zauner said, Crying in H Mart began as a sort of “Julie & Julia”–style ode to the YouTuber Maangchi, whose cooking videos have made her into YouTube’s “Korean Julia Child,” according to The New York Times.
“I found that the original essay unearthed some feeling within that inspired something greater,” Zauner said.
The memoir also touches on Zauner’s mother, Chongmi’s decline while fighting a rare form of cancer during Zauner’s young adult life. Zauner wrote plaintively of how Chongmi cared for her even in poor health.
“I wished desperately for a way to transfer pain, wished I could prove to my mother just how much I loved her, that I could just crawl into her hospital cot and press my body close enough to absorb her burden,” Zauner wrote.
Aside from her memoir, Zauner also discussed her music career.
The shoegaze-inspired indie pop phenomenon Japanese Breakfast captivated the music scene for years before lead singer Zauner made her debut as an author. Japanese Breakfast’s most recent album, Jubilee, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album, while the band was nominated for Best New Artist in 2022.
Although the earlier music Japanese Breakfast produced came as a result of Zauner being “devastated all the time,” she later jokingly admitted she sometimes “makes shit up,” to disguise the fact that her life is currently uninteresting. Zauner described herself as a “fiercely independent bad kid.”
Several students brought copies of Crying in H Mart to the lecture. Freshman psychology major Vivian Jiang carried CDs of Japanese Breakfast’s three albums in the hope that Zauner would sign them.
Jiang said that while she hasn’t experienced grief akin to Zauner’s, she can still sympathize with Zauner’s story in Crying in H Mart.
“I knew her from her music first, like I fell in love with Japanese Breakfast,” Jiang said. “I feel like a large part of her book is towards her identity where she wasn’t able to really reflect at the time.”
Aside from her music career and burgeoning writing career, Zauner is also writing a screenplay for the film adaptation of Crying in H Mart. Zauner said the screenwriting process is more difficult than songwriting because of the greater restrictions it comes with.
Zauner’s identity as an Asian American woman heavily resonated with students who found cultural similarities through Zauner’s writing.
“I’m really glad that there’s representation for the Asian American community in this book, and I’m really happy that she’s here,” sophomore psychology major Avipsa Hamal said before the event Thursday.
Students in attendance could also relate to the mother-daughter dynamics Zauner discusses in her memoir. Outsiders often did not understand the love Zauner and her mother shared, due to cultural differences and emotional strain.
For junior public health science major Eva Shannon, Crying in H Mart reflected many common themes in mother-daughter relationships. Zauner’s descriptions were “specific but also universal,” Shannon said.
“I was so moved by it — just her relationship with her mother,” Shannon said before the event. “I was crying.”