I remember clearly when it first occurred to me that my parents would die. Logically, I had of course known that they would, but having been born when they were both thirty, I’d always imagined them as having more life ahead of them than behind, regardless of their aging. Before college, looking even a year into the future was like peering at a distant planet — the time ahead was hazy and not of my concern. But then the realization struck me: I was eighteen and laying on my back on my dingy dorm room carpet with my feet stretched up against the ladder of my lofted bed. I blinked against the halo of the fluorescent light on the ceiling and then the floor disappeared from beneath me.I would die. My parents would die. I hadn’t talked to them in a few days and something might have already happened. A car overturned on the side of the highway, a lunatic at the mall with a gun, a dark spot on my mom’s yearly mammogram. I’d been pushed through a door that disappeared as soon as I passed through it, and there was no exiting the room of this new truth.
Michelle Zauner is perhaps better known (though maybe not for long given her memoir’s success) as Japanese Breakfast, the band that she founded in 2013. I’ve loved her music since I was in college. My friend played her album Soft Sounds From Another Planet for me from her phone while we lined our eyes and dusted glitter on ourselves before we went out. The music feels caught between dreams and waking life: songs like “Diving Woman” are trancelike and insistent in their repetition. Others like “12 Steps” are jagged and triumphant, infused with infectious confidence by their big sound. In all three of her studio albums — Psychopomp, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, and Jubilee — what’s apparent to me about Zauner’s musical style is that she has stunning command of opposing emotional dynamics. Her music submerged me in the lowest depths of grief and pulled me back out again to dry and breathe in the sun.
This intensity of feeling is also the foundation of her writing, and it was rewarding to witness a continuity of experience between her two mediums. Crying in H Mart is Zauner’s first book, her account of what I fear most. I felt almost timid as I opened to its first chapter. It is the story of her mother Chongmi’s early death from cancer — the before, after, and the in-between. This death is a narrative center toward which every word moves, and my confrontation with it came quickly when the news of her mother’s illness arrives early in the book. Zauner was freshly twenty-five and had traveled to New York to see her friend’s band play when her mother called to share the news. On the memory of this phone call, Zauner writes:
I stopped pacing, frozen and winded. Across the street a man was entering a barbershop. A group of friends sat at an outdoor table. People were deciding on appetizers. Bumming cigarettes. Dropping off dry cleaning. Bagging dog droppings. Calling off engagements. The world moved on without pause on a pleasant, warm day in May while I stood silent and dumbfounded on the pavement and learned that my mother was now in grave danger of dying from an illness that had already killed someone I love.
There are stretches of writing like this throughout where the mundane and the significant slam up against one another, emphasizing the destabilizing effect that an event with such gravitational pull has on one’s surroundings. Though Zauner’s voice is gorgeously lyric in some places, it’s cuttingly straightforward, even pinched in others, and she maintains expert control over the ebb and flow of this shifting dynamic. What are death and its processes but the greatest melodrama of all? We are warm and alive, and then we’ll be gone and disappeared. Even at the highest point of emotion, at this shift from life into death, Zauner keeps her narrative threads close at hand, rendering these scenes with a coherence that defies the senselessness of grief.
Death drapes a heavy cloak over Crying in H Mart, but Zauner consistently lifts its edges as she writes about her Korean identity and how connecting with her mother’s and her own heritage is a protection against death’s theft of memory. She writes of trips to visit family in Korea — her aunts, grandmother, and cousins, all of whom she reveres. These relationships are complicated by a language barrier and its divide that Zauner tries to bridge. She writes frequently about Nami, her mother’s eldest sister who eventually had to live through both Chongmi’s and her other sister Eunmi’s deaths. Food, especially food shared with others, plays an essential role in the way that Zauner remains connected with Nami and her living family. In one poignant scene at a barbecue restaurant in Seoul, Zauner fumbles to find the right words as she speaks with Nami, assisted by the translator app on her phone: “ . . . the sentences were too long and complicated for any translation app, so I quit halfway through and just reached for her hand and the two of us went on slurping the cold noodles from the tart, icy beef broth.” Food brings Zauner closer with Nami, forming a conversation of its own. There is speech here that operates beyond language, a vocabulary established by food and the rituals of its preparation that guards against disconnection from family. These scenes of shared meals were as moving as any dialogue between Zauner and her loved ones, perhaps because there is something unmistakably intimate about satisfying our most human needs in the company of one another.
As it does with Nami and others, food serves as a central point of connection between Zauner and her mother, as it was one of the first tethers that bound them together, a path into her mother’s often hard-won affection. On trips to Seoul, Zauner would experience the delights of Korean cuisine that weren’t readily available in the United States. She writes:
Once, when I was a kid, I had impressed my mother, intuitively dipping a whole raw pepper into ssamjang paste at a barbecue restaurant in Seoul. The bitterness and spice of the vegetable perfectly married with the savory, salty taste of the sauce, itself made from fermented peppers and soybeans. It was a poetic combination, to reunite something in its raw form with its twice-dead cousin. ‘This is a very old taste,’ my mother had said.
My mouth watered at these luscious, sensory descriptions of food and eating that appear throughout. For Zauner, food is not just taste, not just nourishment, but an entire experience in itself, one that not only formed a critical facet of her personhood, but remains a direct line to her mother even after her death. The richness of Zauner’s writing on food forms a vibrant counterpoint to the emotional starvation of grief. There is Korean fried chicken with “hot oil gushing triumphantly from its double-fried crust,” “firm, briny abalone that looked like little sliced mushrooms, served inside their beautiful holographic shells,” and “vegetables fermenting in a fragrant bouquet of fish sauce, garlic, ginger, and gochugaru.” The completeness with which Zauner describes eating extends a comforting vitality toward the sorrows around it. Food doesn’t erase, but it does balance and ground; where death forms a void, food casts a powerful charm, gathering the substance of memory around it.
The profundity of Zauner’s grief is given additional texture by the candidness with which she speaks of painful memories that were formed before her mother’s death. Zauner catalogs the withheld affections she longed for as a child, particularly during her tumultuous teenage years. She struggles against her mother’s fiercely critical attitude, often leading to explosive arguments. When Zauner was preparing to leave for college at Bryn Mawr, her mother commented on the clothes she was bringing with her — an ugly sweater collection and cut-up Daniel Johnston shirt. Zauner shot back: “‘Well, I’m not like you,” I said. ‘I have more important things to think about than the way I look.’” Her mother immediately grabbed her to hit her backside, and when her father heard them and came upstairs, she commanded him to hit her too. As I’m sure Zauner did, I felt the air leave the room as I read this passage and others like it. The intensity of this conflict between a mother and her daughter is one that felt familiar to me, a complicating factor to the particular fear I feel around the loss of my mother. For every instance of gentleness and endearment that Zauner catalogs, it seems there is an opposite one of conflict and strain. The effect that these dissonances have on the book overall is one of wholeness and satisfying contradiction — not satisfying for its pain, but rather for its willingness to capture a truth as fully as possible. Crying in H Mart is a study of personhood and its failures, of lapses in judgment and weaknesses that embitter even the sweetest love.
I have been fascinated by the archetype of the psychopomp ever since Zauner titled her first album as Japanese Breakfast with that word. For the years when I listened to it in college, I didn’t know what it meant — I imagined some sort of frenetic celebration replete with ball gowns, painted faces, and streamers brushing past towering white powder wigs. It was only within the last year or so that I found out I was extremely wrong: in Greek mythology, a psychopomp guides the souls of the recently dead to the afterlife. Zauner describes her mother’s and her own resistance to prescriptive Christian customs and mentalities, but that resistance stands alongside, even complements, what is a decidedly spiritual dimension of this book.
The memories that Zauner wades through, particularly the ones conjured by her preparation of food intrinsically connected with her mother and family, are more like spectral encounters than fixed images of past life. Perhaps it’s my own desperation that led me to project a kind of ghostliness onto Zauner’s work: I didn’t want her to lose Chongmi and so I imagined these poignant recollections as more than that, as passageways skirting death. I don’t want to lose my own mother, and in an attempt to distance myself from the fact of her death, I remain hopeful that she and I will be with each other even after she’s gone. One chapter in Crying in H Mart is devoted entirely to dreams that Zauner had of her mother after she died. Most of them were variations of the same premise: Chongmi was still alive, but she was just somewhere else, and then Zauner would find her. The attitude that Zauner takes toward these dream encounters approximates a kind of agnosticism. Maybe that wasn’t Chongmi, but it was still a moment in which an afterimage of her was visible again. Zauner’s willingness to share the mysteries of grief and mourning, whether or not they speak to a larger spiritual unknown, drew me closer into this book.
There is a type of essayistic time unraveling here that isn’t bound by linearity. As I read, I flipped backward to look at my underlines and reread poignant passages. I visited places in the book where certain devastations had not yet taken place. Chongmi walked across the pages in her huge sunglasses, where she slurped noodles with Zauner and the two of them walked the aisles of their local grocery Korean store in Eugene. Of course, these visitations I made back in the book’s narrative time did not occlude Zauner’s nor my knowing that an end would come and her mother would die. What is remarkable is that Zauner does not rush ahead to that end. She takes her time. She lingers on a moment when she tried octopus for the first time, its tentacle wriggling against her tongue. She pauses to watch the memory of her mother wrapping layers and layers of plastic over a package of jeotgal to bring back to Oregon from Seoul. The fluidity of Zauner’s writing and the nimbleness with which she weaves in and out of different timelines produce an effect that I can only describe as magic. There is not one scene in this book, not a single conversation, that is not tinted with a shade of impending or present grief. And there is not a moment that is not equally colored by the consuming, singular love of Zauner’s relationship with her mother, by their difficult conflicts and their easy joys.
Zauner was my psychopomp, leading me through caverns of her grief whose walls I wanted to memorize in preparation for my own inevitable loss. What I knew when I emerged from my reading, though, is that this is a journey whose outlines cannot be traced before I’m inside them. I am lucky to have both parents alive, and I recognize my reading of Crying in H Mart as a visitation in the truest sense: I entered Zauner’s grief and then I left it, but it was never mine. As much as I want this writing to be my own loss survival handbook, it is Zauner’s life and hers alone. What I can say for certain, though, is that as Zauner guided me through these corridors of her own life, little pieces of her world attached to me. What I can say is that I will now move through my own world having been changed.
Claire Fallon is an essayist and poet. She lives in Queens and is a first-year nonfiction MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has appeared in HAD, Passages North, and Cosmonauts Avenue.
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