“Where do you go after you witness death?” Michelle Zauner asks herself in Crying in H Mart, her first book, which opens with the viral New Yorker essay of the same name. Following the loss of her mother Chongmi to cancer, as well as the deaths of her grandmother and aunt, Zauner found herself going regularly to H Mart, the Asian supermarket chain redolent with as many flavours of nostalgia as there are types of instant noodles. Emotionally layered, these pilgrimages are suffused with the grief, anger and anxiety that underpin “the first chapter of the story I want to tell about my mother”. This story is also Zauner’s own, showing not just where she went next, but where she comes from, and who she is.
For the Korean-American writer, musical artist and founder of the band Japanese Breakfast, food is a portal: “When I go to H Mart, I’m not just on the hunt for cuttlefish and three bunches of scallions for a buck: I’m searching for memories. I’m collecting the evidence that the Korean half of my identity didn’t die when they did.” When she does her weekly shop on the ground floor, giant vats of crushed garlic and pre-prepared banchan are the reminders of her drift from Korean culture without her mother as an anchor. “Am I Korean any more if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” Then, upstairs in the food court, Zauner cries into her lunch as she watches “the ultimate display of a Korean woman’s tenderness” at a neighbouring table, where a mother gives a relentless stream of instructions on how her adult son should eat his meal.
Zauner finds it hard to remember when her mother died (18 October 2014) – but she can remember what she ate, and how: enthusiastically and idiosyncratically. Her mother’s taste, Zauner recounts, ran salty and hot – and so did her style of parenting. Like the mothers of the food court, Chongmi expressed her love vigorously through food: “No matter how critical or cruel she could seem – constantly pushing me to meet her intractable expectations – I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she packed and the meals she prepared for me just the way I liked them.”
A solitary child with only her mother to talk to growing up in the woods outside of Eugene, Oregon, Zauner is frequently overwhelmed by her mother’s devotion, which “could both be an auspicious privilege and have smothering consequences”. Zauner’s journey into young adulthood is a push-and-pull struggle with this “brutal, industrial-strength” form of tough love, but she learns early on that she can gain approval through demonstrating a sophisticated palate. On summer visits “like a perfect dream” to her maternal family in Seoul, Zauner tries and appreciates even the most formidable of dishes – such as the wriggling tentacles, “every suction cup still pulsing”, of live, long-armed octopus – and in doing so, finds a way to shine in the spotlight of Chongmi’s demanding perfectionism.
Performance and music become an outlet for the young Zauner, who gets a guitar after seeing Karen O, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman whose stage presence “obliterated the docile Asian stereotype”. Escaping Eugene for college, Zauner continues to play in bands and attempts to forge her own path as a musician after completing her degree in creative writing and film. Aged 25, Zauner lives a life ostensibly unscripted, yet one that’s already been defined by Chongmi’s standards as “floundering in reality, living the life of an unsuccessful artist”. Then she receives the call: her mother is sick.
Psychopomp, Zauner’s first record released with Japanese Breakfast in 2016, features a phone recording of Chongmi. “Gwaenchanha, gwaenchanha,” she says. “It’s OK, sweetheart, don’t cry.” These words – “Korean words so familiar, the gentle coo I’d heard my whole life that assured me whatever ache was at hand would pass” – appear too in Crying in H Mart. “Even as she was dying, my mother offered me solace, her instinct to nurture overwhelming any personal fear.”
Moving back to Eugene to care and to cook for her mother, Zauner is “no longer scheming a wild escape into the dark but desperately hoping that a darkness would not come in”. As Zauner becomes more and more absorbed with ensuring Chongmi gets enough calories, her own appetite diminishes. She starts bargaining, appealing to the sacrificial magic of role reversal: perhaps, if she can carry her mother’s pain in her place, can adequately perform “the rite of an only daughter”, Zauner can broker a cure, which would be obscurely but profoundly connected to making amends for her childish waywardness and teenage rebellion.
The Zauners prepare to honour Chongmi’s wishes to discontinue treatment after two failed rounds of chemotherapy. Together, they try to live as much as possible before death, and the fragmentation of the unit held together by Chongmi – there is little warmth between Zauner and her white American father Joel. Against medical advice, they make a disastrous trip to Korea so Chongmi can say goodbye to her birth country, where her condition severely deteriorates. When Chongmi pulls through enough for the family to return to Oregon, Zauner marries her boyfriend and bandmate Peter; “the prospect of the wedding worked its magic” to boost their spirits. Nonetheless, after the celebration comes the waiting, with “the last days excruciatingly drawn out”.
Crying in H Mart takes the measure of the complex bond and the impassable, yet tender, interval between mother and daughter. Chongmi taught Zauner to “save 10 per cent, always, so there was something to fall back on”. When her mother dies, Zauner, “left alone to decipher the secrets of inheritance without its key”, examines the gaps left within her by that hidden fraction.
Is 10% the degree of difference between Zauner, the consummate performer, off the page and the Zauner we meet in the book – the space in which experience as it unfolds becomes memoir? Her prose is a vivid performance, moving from self-deprecating to attentive, with textured descriptions of the aesthetic and felt qualities of any moment. Although we learn that it’s Peter who has “read all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time”, through her writing Zauner performs the work of creative memory that recovers and transmutes the past into something liveable, with verve and honesty.
Zauner doesn’t dabble much in metaphysics, but death is a doorway; Chongmi, who believes in reincarnation, always said “she’d like to return as a tree”. The “suspiciously charmed” years following her death bring acclaim for Psychopomp, so named after the escort of souls to the afterlife: “Only after she died did things, as if magically, begin to happen.” Japanese Breakfast tour Asia, finishing up in Seoul, where Zauner reconnects with her remaining Korean family across linguistic and cultural divides through music, and, of course, food.
After chemotherapy Chongmi says her veins look black, as if toxins run through them. “Medicine,” Zauner corrects. “Killing all the bad things.” The nature of this confusion is expressed in the pharmakon: a Greek term that means both poison and remedy, and which, according to Jacques Derrida, also represents writing itself. A story of great loss and growth, Crying in H Mart holds this ambiguity, too. With Japanese Breakfast’s latest album Jubilee, described by Zauner as “about joy”, following up the book (for which film rights have also been optioned), it seems that in her art, she has found the tricky yet transformative key to her inheritance.
• Crying in H Mart is published by Picador (£1.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianboookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.