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In 'Crying In H Mart' Michelle Zauner Grapples With Food, Grief And Identity

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"Crying In H Mart" is a memoir of food and family. The author, Michelle Zauner, is a successful musician who performs as Japanese Breakfast. She grew up with a white, American father and a Korean mother. After her mother died of cancer in 2014, Zauner writes she would stand in the aisles of the Korean grocery store chain H Mart.

MICHELLE ZAUNER: (Reading) 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?

SHAPIRO: Throughout the book, food serves as a form of connection, a way of caring for someone who's ill and remembering them after they're gone.

ZAUNER: I think for my mom, every time I ate in a very Korean way, it sort of reminded her, like, that's my kid.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Yeah.

ZAUNER: And I think that there might be, like, some fear that, raising a kid in America, they might lose that part of their heritage. And so I think that it gave my mom great comfort and joy and pride when she saw her daughter eating food that she grew up eating.

SHAPIRO: Your mother had a bunch of distinctive idioms, and one of them was about crying. What was it that she would say?

ZAUNER: My mom would frequently tell me to save your tears for when your mother dies.

SHAPIRO: What did she mean by that?

ZAUNER: I mean, I think that she meant, you know, don't cry over anything petty, you know? Like, save it for something real happens. And in my family, the worst thing that could ever happen, honestly, was my mother passing away, I think.

SHAPIRO: And so when her death became a reality, how did you think about that idiom?

ZAUNER: Well, it was actually interesting. You know, I thought it - I had thought it was so cruel growing up, and I obviously hated to hear it. And as I got older and I started speaking more with other members of our family, I learned that that was actually something that her mother had said to her growing up. And I had never known that that was something that she had been told until after she passed away.

SHAPIRO: So after she was gone, tell us about how food helped you process her loss.

ZAUNER: I think it helped me process her loss in many ways. One was this real sort of psychological undoing of this sense of failure that I had. You know, when she was sick, there was a real role reversal that I had anticipating, especially as an only child, having to take on my whole life. And a big part of that was this real desire to nourish her and to prepare these meals for her to help her while she was going through chemotherapy.

And I discovered, you know, there was a lot about Korean food, particularly the type of meals that you eat when you're sick, that I didn't know. There was a woman that came to live with us for some time that sort of prepared these meals, and I always felt this real shame that I wasn't able to do that. And I think after she passed away, part of learning how to cook Korean food was sort of, like, undoing that in myself psychologically and forgiving myself for that.

SHAPIRO: There was a YouTuber who kind of, like, helped you on your journey of learning how to cook Korean food. And as I read the book, I wondered if you had ever reached out to her, if she has any idea of the role she played in kind of helping you connect to these recipes.

ZAUNER: Oh, yes. I had my sort of, like, Korean "Julie And Julia" moment with this...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right, totally.

ZAUNER: ...Like, Korean YouTube blogger named Maangchi, who, if you don't know, you should definitely check out. She is just, like, the most magnetic and effervescent cooking show host, and she completely demystified a lot of these, you know, Korean dishes that I had grown up with but never learned how to cook. And I actually saw her do a Q&A in New York a few years ago, and I gave her the essay that sort of started this whole piece. And she reached out to me, and I actually went to her apartment for my 30th birthday. And she made me...

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

ZAUNER: She made me, like, bulgogi, and I got to try her kimchi. She bought me a little cake. And she's been just, like...

SHAPIRO: Oh, that's so amazing.

ZAUNER: Yeah, she's been, you know, so generous and caring.

SHAPIRO: That's so great. She's in her 60s, and so I wonder if in some way you feel like you now have a maternal figure helping you navigate Korean cooking, having lost your mother, who, you know, would have been playing this role, had she been around.

ZAUNER: Yeah. I mean, she's honestly been, like, a sort of digital guardian angel for me. There were so many things when I was watching her videos that really reminded me of my mother and brought me such great comfort from the way that she peels an Asian pear with this giant knife towards her in, like, one long strip.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Yeah.

ZAUNER: And I also love the way that she pronounces zucchini just like my mom, where she says zucquini (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: This is not a rock memoir per se, but you're best known as a musician. You record as Japanese Breakfast. And you write in this book about one of your early inspirations, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And the frontwoman, Karen O, is also half-Korean. Tell us about what she represented to you as an up-and-coming songwriter.

ZAUNER: I mean, she just changed my whole world. I mean, it was the first time - you know, I mean, even just being a woman in the rock scene was such a rarity, and to see that level of showmanship in any performer was just astounding. And then to later learn that this woman was also half-Korean, I mean, it was like seeing myself for the first time. It gave me this sense that if she can do it, it's something I can do. But I also remember having this, like, real confrontation with the scarcity mentality and having this real thought of, oh, if she's a half-Korean woman, then there's already an Asian woman in rock music.

SHAPIRO: The job of half-Korean female rocker...

ZAUNER: There's no longer - right (laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...Has been filled. We are no longer accepting applications - that sort of thing.

ZAUNER: Which is absurd...

SHAPIRO: Right.

ZAUNER: ...Because, like, what, you know, little white boy, like, sees...

SHAPIRO: Right.

ZAUNER: ...Mick Jagger and is like, well, I guess my spot is taken?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

ZAUNER: (Laughter) You know?

SHAPIRO: Your real breakthrough success came after your mother's death, and you describe in this book playing a show in Seoul, the city where she grew up. What did that mean to you?

ZAUNER: I mean, it was tremendous. It was one of those things where, like, at this point, my success has exceeded my ambitions or whatever I thought could maybe happen in my wildest dreams. I never thought I would be able to play in Seoul, the city where my mother was raised and I was born, and I was able to perform for my aunt.

And, yeah, it was just such a moving, full-circle moment where, you know, my mom - you know, there's actually a photo of her in her 20s on my album, on my first album "Psychopomp" that we toured there with. And I just remember having this really, you know, tremendous moment watching all of these Korean kids carry out her face on this square record, like, out into the streets of Seoul and, you know, just knowing, like, she would never believe it but also having to feel in my heart that she knows in some way.

SHAPIRO: Michelle Zauner's new book is "Crying In H Mart." Thank you for talking with us about it.

ZAUNER: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POSING IN BONDAGE")

JAPANESE BREAKFAST: (Singing) When the world divides into two people - those who have felt pain and those who have yet to - and I can't unsee it although I would like to, posing in bondage, I hope you come home soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.