I picked up this book partly because I saw Zauner interviewed on the Daily Show, and partly because it was recommended in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading Guide. I was intrigued by the title and the subject — it’s a book about family and loss, about being biracial and the daughter of an immigrant, and about how food sometimes means love.
Zauner is a Korean-American who leads a band called Japanese Breakfast. The book focuses on her relationship with her mother, who died from cancer about five years ago, and it’s also about Zauner’s exploration of her Korean-American heritage after her mother becomes ill. Zauner shares the good times and the bad with her mother, never sugar-coating or glossing over their difficult times. She writes about issues she had growing up that I think many will understand, even if my own experiences were quite different from hers. As a rebellious teenager, Zauner wished her mother would develop more of her own identity instead of focusing so much on her daughter. And then in her twenties she suddenly had limited time to repair that relationship; and then it was a struggle to know the best way to be there for her mother.
“I’ve just never met someone like you,” as if I were a stranger from another town or an eccentric guest accompanying a mutual friend to a dinner party. It was a strange thought to hear from the mouth of the woman who had birthed and raised me, with whom I shared a home for eighteen years, someone who was half me. My mother had struggled to understand me just as I struggled to understand her.Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Zauner explores her grief through Korean food, which is deeply tied to her memories of her mother. I love Korean food; of course I didn’t know most of the foods Zauner writes about, beyond bibimbap, gochujang, and kimchi, but I still enjoyed reading about them. I haven’t been to H-Mart, although I do have an H-Mart nearby, since I live close to a suburb known for its Korean-American community. I mean to go check it out.
I also really enjoyed reading about Zauner’s travels to Korea and Vietnam, and getting to know her Korean relatives. I always appreciate stories where people are able to explore the places their family comes from. I’ve done a little of that myself, though not nearly enough.
The writing in this book has a rough feel to it, which is fine since it’s her first book and about a very difficult subject. I could feel the raw emotion (particularly in the audiobook, which Zauner narrates) and that only enhances the book’s impact. The parts about cancer are difficult to read, and Zauner doesn’t shy away from the details about the physical effects of cancer on her mother. Those are certainly the most vivid parts of the book, but that’s part of what makes this book so moving. The first chapter has a much more polished tone, because it started out as an essay published in the New Yorker, and it’s a beautiful summary of the rest of the book.
This is a book I recommend for anyone who enjoys reading memoirs, particularly those that involve race, immigration, food, travel, and exploring one’s roots. It’s a heartbreaking story that I’m sure many of us can relate to (though it might be too painful for someone who has experienced cancer or lost a loved one recently). I came away from the book wanting to know even more about Zauner, so I’m listening to her music and watching more of her interviews (her band is in my area this week). And maybe I’ll make that trip to H-Mart.