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May 7, 2021

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In ‘Crying in H Mart,’ an Oregonian confronts grief, nourishes Korean identity through food

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Whenever I drive by H Mart, I think about Michelle Zauner.

Three years ago, Zauner, who grew up in the woods south of Eugene, published “ Crying in H Mart,” a New Yorker essay about food, grief and discovering cultural identity through food. In the essay, which was widely shared, Zauner walked the aisles of the big box Asian supermarket, moved to tears by memories of her Korean mom, who died after a brutal fight with gastrointestinal cancer in 2014.

Turns out, that essay was just the first chapter in a fine new memoir of the same name, a book that details Zauner’s return to Oregon to help care for her mother, estrangement from her Jewish-American father and attempts to rewind the effects of a rebellious childhood while unlocking her Korean identity. Zauner will discuss the book during a virtual Powell’s event on Thursday, April 29.

Until now, Zauner has been best known as Japanese Breakfast, an indie rock band poised for its own breakout thanks to a buoyant new album, “Jubilee,” set to come out just two months after the book. Two singles have been released so far, each with a self-directed video: “ Be Sweet,” a fun, funky pop song with 80s synth vibes and hammy visuals nodding to “The X-Files” (by way of the Beastie Boys’ “ Sabotage “); and “ Posing in Bondage,” a more downbeat, electronic track. In the video, Zauner, dressed in a black leotard with flying monkey wings, chin bloodied like a sated vampire, rides a hoverboard through the same Los Angeles supermarket where they filmed the parking lot scene in 2018′s “A Star is Born.”

After two albums that dealt with the same heavy subject matter as her memoir, the songs feel like a reawakening, and a relief. It feels right that they’re coming out in spring, albeit a year later than originally planned.

In her book, Zauner doesn’t write specifically about Tigard’s H Mart, the massive store on the road to Oregon wine country where you can shop for produce or stationery, buy a quality rice cooker or eat a bowl of fiery soondubujjigae, spooning soft tofu and kimchi over fluffy rice as red broth drips dots on your plastic tray. The author, who left Eugene to attend Bryn Mawr College, spent more time at the H Marts in suburban Philadelphia and in New York, where she lives now (though Zauner says the Tigard location is the place her mother bought the kimchi fridge that plays an important role in the memoir).

When I call, I can hear water running in the background at Zauner’s Brooklyn apartment, and I wonder whether she might be soaking Napa cabbage leaves to make tongbaechu kimchi, a time-consuming process that comes to serve as a bi-monthly therapy replacement in “Crying in H Mart.” But our time is short, and I know that Zauner has an event that evening with the cookbook author and YouTube superstar Maangchi, herself a major character (and surrogate mother figure) in the memoir, so I jump right to the point. Question and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Your memoir is so precise, particularly compared to the more impressionistic quality of songwriting. How were you able to jump between the two styles?

A: Going in, I was a lot cockier about switching between the two than I should have been. I studied creative writing in college, and I’ve always identified as a writer even more than as a musician. And then as soon as I learned a few chords on the guitar, I was off to the races. Music was always a vehicle for writing. I actually used to work for the school newspaper in middle school and high school, then wrote for the “20Below” column for the Register Guard. And I’ve always taken lyric writing seriously. In conversation, friends have pointed out that I’ve stolen some lines from songs for chapter titles. In some ways, they’re very similar in the way that it helps to be a very sensitive person, and be moved by everyday things. You’re drawing from the same pool of memories in both songs and prose. And I am a very sensitive person.

Q: “Posing in Bondage” repeats that thought from the book about the world being divided into people “who have felt pain and those who have yet to.” That resonated with me, even though I still have both my parents. But let’s get back to writing: How were you able to get so much specific detail into the book? Were you keeping a diary, or?

A: Some of memoir writing is just a selection of memory that makes up your whole life, and certainly what’s in the book is stuff that stuck with me for a long time, big moments. So (the process) was just unpacking that, free writing, and returning to it over and over again, and sometimes new things would arise. And yes, some of the book was happening in real time, especially when I was visiting Seoul, developing this relationship with Nami (Zauner’s aunt, who lives in South Korea). I looked to a lot of photographs, too…

Q: Like the ones you found in [redacted due to spoilers]! That must have felt like a miraculous find.

A: Yeah, it was. And it was almost cheesy.

Q: Not at all. And it led to one of my favorite parts in the book, where you compare holding onto memories to fermenting kimchi, which you once thought of as a “controlled death.” Instead, you write, “when brined and stored, its decay is altered,” fermented foods enjoy “a new life altogether.”

A: I think that what I’ve learned from grief is that, similar to writing a book, there’s no skipping steps. Time has to take its course. So much of that passage is about learning to actively engage with memory, and using ritual as self care, even as a non-religious person.

Q: You reveal some family secrets in this book that you must have kept for years, even decades. How were you able to be so open about your personal life?

A: I had practice being a musician. It’s a unique medium to work in, people already imbue your work with their emotions and feel like they have access to you. And I’ve done interviews for a really long time where I’m open about this stuff. I was always enchanted by my mom’s ability to be stoic, and there were definitely fears I had, asking myself, ‘Would she not have liked this? What do I have to keep under cover?” But I felt the self importance and entitlement to do it. That’s what being an artist is, that’s what I love and ultimately I thought that the stuff that most terrified me was the stuff that would hit the hardest.

Q: Did you “save 10 percent of yourself,” as your mother advised you to do?

A: I think I did. It might not seem like it.

Q: How much time do you spend in Oregon these days?

A: Well, none right now. I really miss it though, especially as we near the summertime, when Oregon has just hit its stride. It used to be that I got to visit once or twice a year, because of touring, and we were always playing Portland and even Eugene, and they would try to give me a day off while we were there. But I’m getting my second vaccine shot, and I would love to get back for a week or two. I miss Newman’s fish and chips. I miss Nancy’s Yogurt. I miss Cafe Yumm. I miss Jake’s in Portland. It’s very much my hometown. But I don’t have any family there anymore.

Q: You wrote about your mom loving Jake’s. You also mentioned eating at a sushi restaurant…

A: Oh yeah, it was at Mame, which is now called Akira Omakase, and I would love to send business his way. His name is Taro (Kobayashi), and he just saw me crying so hard. He must have felt so bad for me, and he made me a little gift certificate for a free dinner that just said, “Cancer sucks.” It’s really a great sushi restaurant, some of the best sushi I’ve ever had.

Q: Great sushi in Eugene?

A: It really is. And I live in Brooklyn now. I’ve eaten sushi in Japan. This place is up there.

Q: What about the scene where you eat the steak, drink wine and have a breakdown. Was that Marché?

A: Yeah! Good call. My dad always complained about how overpriced it was.

Q: There aren’t that many places to get filet mignon in Eugene. I’m curious how you think your parents’ food obsession shaped you. Your dad sounds like he’s a pretty adventurous eater too.

A: I mean so much. I was really lucky that my parents challenged me to try things at a young age, and made me experience food with so much joy. As I write in the second chapter, they both grew up poor and working class. Neither one went to college, so there wasn’t a whole lot of cultural leg up that they gifted me with. I never went to museums, I didn’t watch arthouse films or read much growing up. But they had a real appreciation for food, and adventurous palates. My mom was interested in more than just Korean food. And there was nothing that excited my dad more than going to a nice restaurant.

Q: Both of my parents are immigrants, and I was reminded while reading your book of something my mom once told me about living on the East Coast, being snowbound, raising my sister, and just being so, so bored. You write about your own burning desire to leave Eugene, but do you think your mom might have also been bored? Coming from Seoul, even Portland must have seemed like a backwater to her…

A: If she was bored, she kept it hidden from me. She was someone who enjoyed relaxing and self care, she really loved buying things and shopping and collecting and taking care of herself, and putting outfits together. And that might make her seem really shallow, but these are big parts of her that I remember. I feel like she felt like she was really occupied with me, doting on me, but I didn’t think of her as an actual person until my early 20s, in the way that you’re in your own world as a teenager. That’s a really indulgent kid thing to say, and I’m sure she was bored in a way, and I’m sure that she delighted in our biannual visits to Seoul. Both of my parents were raised in larger cities, but my dad really loved the idea of having property and privacy. They were enjoying living in the nature of Oregon.

Q: When your mother gets sick on her last trip to Seoul, I thought about Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. But when you make it back home, your doctor seems to talk you out of it, tell you and your dad that the pain can be managed, even as your mother’s last word ends up being “pain.” Looking back, do you wish that route had been presented as more of a possibility?

A: I think about that all the time, honestly. I know that my mom was very comfortable with that option. I was so certain that that kind of decision would be so easy to make, and I wish that it was more normalized, as someone who has had so much of my mother’s family die from this illness, and having this fear and reality that this could happen to me, and that if it did — this might be a little bleak — but if I were to wake up tomorrow with stage 4 cancer, I don’t think I would want to go through chemotherapy, and I would want to take that option before I even went downhill.

But it’s difficult because at what point do you make that call? When she went to the hospital in septic shock, and everything was going downhill, and my dad and I were at the bar, and they were telling us they were going to put her on a ventilator, but then we got back and it was like some miracle had happened and she was just fine? What if we had missed out on those next three weeks with her?

If we had, my mom might not have seen my wedding. We might not have had that beautiful moment together. And even when she was in the coma for a week, I kept waiting for her to wake up, and I don’t even know that I could have made that call then. The reality is a lot more difficult than it seems from the outside. I used to think that the moment to make that call would be a lot clearer than it was. I’m curious about how other people have had that situation and when they’ve made that call.

Q: I noticed you filmed yourself eating instant ramen in both of your new music videos. Will you commit to eating noodles in all of your videos from here on out?

A: No, I’m about to come out with another video and there’s no noodle eating.

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