‘Crying in H Mart’: A majestic memoir

Julia Croston, Managing Editor

Michelle Zauner’s vulnerable memoir, “Crying in H Mart,” follows her complicated relationship with her late mother, who died from cancer when the author was 25. Her debut book explores a mother-daughter relationship, food as an expression of love and culture, and the emotions that surround grief. 

Published in 2021, the book won the Goodreads Choice award, for best memoir and autobiography, as selected by readers. The first chapter of the memoir, also titled “Crying in H Mart,” was published in 2018 as an article for The New Yorker before Zauner expanded further. 

“H Mart is where your people gather under one odorous roof, full of faith that they’ll find something they can’t find anywhere else.”

In addition to being a newly awarded author, Zauner is the lead singer of the band Japanese Breakfast. Using her experience as a lyricist, Zauner’s language is easily accessible, yet poetic. She does not hold back from portraying the harsh reality of losing her mother. The writing creates a distinct space that encapsulates specific emotions and reflects on the human condition. 

When crying in H Mart, a prominent Korean-American grocery store, Zauner is reminded of the culture passed down from her late mother. Watching others in the store, she feels jealous of their good health and shows concern for children with their mothers, hoping they never have to endure what she did. 

“I wonder how many people at H Mart miss their families. How many are thinking of them as they bring their trays back from the different stalls. If they’re eating to feel connected, to celebrate these people through food.”

While there are heavy moments, Zauner finds a delicate balance between portraying the depressing and the humorous. Through language, there is something beautiful and comforting in the midst of heartbreaking grief. 

Straying from conventional structure, Zauner does not follow a linear narrative, portraying the effect of trauma on how she processes the past. While some may not like the structure, it makes the book unique and reflective of her grieving process. Reading the memoir feels more like a one way conversation with a close friend, providing a personal attachment, rather than reading as a detached observer. 

Image courtesy of Michelle Zauner.

Unflinchingly, Zauner does not glorify the mother-daughter relationship she had after her mother’s death. This was a refreshing choice since most memoirs tend to glorify those who have died. For example, she recalls an argument where her mother yelled, “I had an abortion after you because you were such a terrible child!” Zauner often heard the cruelty in her mother’s words and actions, but also knew her mother loved her, even if she could not always express it. 

“All those years she instructed me to save 10 percent of myself like she did, I never knew it meant she had also been keeping a part of herself from me too.”

To amend childhood conflicts, she shifted all her energy to take care of her mother after the cancer diagnosis. In this moment, the mother-daughter relationship reverses, and Zauner uses this to demonstrate the importance in taking care of family. 

As a common theme, food was the main expression of love between Zauner and her mother. Eating Korean food provides a source of comfort and nostalgia for her. She learns how to make Korean food when taking care of her mother. After the death of her mother, Zauner feels she has lost her connection to Korean culture, since her father is white. Through food and memory, she can keep the connection alive, and Zauner translates this flawlessly to the page. 

The book also incorporates Zauner’s relationship with her husband and fellow band member, Peter Bradley. Fortunately, she was able to marry Peter with her mother in attendance, two weeks before she died. While there were some detailed moments of her relationship with Peter and music, it primarily centers around her mother. 

“Nothing was as vital as music, the only comfort for my existential dread.”

Overall, Zauner’s memoir is a thought-provoking read. Other memoirs may achieve what this one does, but most are unable to replicate its emotions and reading experience. Her ability to truly captivate an audience shines through with the book. Spinnaker is hopeful that Zauner, as a Korean-American musician, will write more books in the future to explore more aspects of her life experiences. 

Spinnaker rates this book 5 out of 5 Spinnaker Sails. 


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