When Chongmi was diagnosed with late-stage gastrointestinal cancer in 2014, Zauner flew back to their family home in Eugene, Ore., and expressed love how it had been modeled for her — by cooking for her mother. After Chongmi died months later, Zauner eventually returned to the opposite coast and coped the same way. She began a ritual of making large batches of kimchi once a month, for herself and any friend who would take some.
Zauner, best known for performing as the musical artist Japanese Breakfast, threads her journey with Korean cooking through the new memoir “Crying in H Mart.” It expands upon an identically titled essay published in the New Yorker a few years ago that explores how the supermarket chain specializing in Asian food came to serve as a bridge to Zauner’s Korean heritage after her mother’s death. “When I go to H Mart, I’m not just on the hunt for cuttlefish and three bunches of scallions for a buck,” she states in the essay, which opens the book. “I’m searching for memories.”
Over a video call from Upstate New York, the 32-year-old writer reflects on how drafting the memoir allowed her to rediscover memories that had been buried by the more grueling moments toward the end of her mother’s life. Zauner discovered her tendency to respond to crises with a sense of determined optimism — soon to be showcased on a new album, “Jubilee.”
After two records full of heartache, Zauner has described her latest as being “about joy.” While completed in 2019, the album will arrive at a time of compounded grief across the nation, the loss of lives to widespread illness and senseless violence in tandem with a surge in hate crimes against Asians, often elders who remind Zauner of her mother and grandma. She has been told the tracks don’t all sound so happy, and she agrees. Her expressions of joy come with the acknowledgement that it is both hard to come by and worth striving for.
“It’s what we spend our whole lives fighting for and trying to preserve and sustain,” she says. “I feel like that’s a really apt thing for the times.”
Zauner dabbled in all sorts of styles while studying creative writing at Bryn Mawr College, with the notable exception of nonfiction. She steered clear of the genre as a way to avoid writing about herself. Among her literary heroes were Richard Ford, Philip Roth and John Updike, whom she characterizes as “writers with grit telling real, human stories.” She, too, wanted to dream up rich fictional lives in lieu of what she saw at the time as the burden of prefacing her story with an explanation of her mixed-race identity and upbringing. She didn’t want to be seen as playing “that card.”
The race card, of course, is its own work of fiction; the merits of writing about her life became clearer to Zauner after her mother’s death, when she also lost her main connection to her Korean heritage. Zauner’s father, Joel, a White man from Philadelphia, had lived in Seoul for a time. But he couldn’t provide his daughter with the answers she sought. What did it mean for her to risk losing such a vital part of herself?
“I felt this sense of urgency, where I just needed to write down what I was feeling because I was very confused,” Zauner says. “It was a way for me to navigate what had happened.”
Her journey began with an essay Glamour magazine published in 2016, two years before the viral New Yorker piece. She wrote the first draft of the memoir throughout 2019, really diving in during a three-week trip to Korea following a spring concert tour. The last time she had accompanied her mother to Seoul was soon after the diagnosis, a sentimental trip on which Chongmi’s health rapidly deteriorated. Zauner notes in the book that by traveling against the doctor’s orders, her family “had tried to choose living over dying and it had turned out to be a horrible mistake.” Over Zoom, she calls it “maybe the ugliest memory I have.”
That was the portion she struggled to write most, the only chapter during which she cried while recording the audiobook. Her mother had been her main companion throughout her childhood in Eugene, as the family lived in a house miles from town and, therefore, far from kids Zauner’s age. She watched as the woman whose fire she had inherited lost a sense of autonomy. It was at that point that Zauner called her then-boyfriend, musician Peter Bradley, and told him they had to get married in time for her mother to attend.
When Chongmi’s health improved enough for her to travel again, the family flew back to Oregon and boosted her spirits by planning for the big day. The couple wed in the backyard that fall, two weeks before Chongmi died. Zauner writes in “Crying in H Mart” that the world came to seem divided into two kinds of people: “those who had felt pain and those who had yet to,” a line that also appears on the “Jubilee” single “Posing in Bondage.”
“I felt grief so vividly, in this new way I had never experienced before,” she says. “There is a certain connection between people who encounter loss in that way. It felt like a very real realization for me that I had sort of crossed over into this new realm.”
Music was “the only comfort for my existential dread,” Zauner writes of her life as a teenager in the Pacific Northwest. She downloaded songs piecemeal off LimeWire, pored over interviews with various indie rock stars, crowd surfed for the first time when Modest Mouse played Eugene’s McDonald Theatre. But her musical ambition was also what “splintered a vein through the already precarious and widening rift” between the high schooler and Chongmi, who once admitted she was “just waiting for you to give this up.”
“My mother felt it was her duty to actually protect me from the space that made me feel a real sense of belonging for the first time,” Zauner says. “I had to push back. I understand why I did that, in retrospect. But it’s been such a painful memory for so long.”
She fronted an indie pop group while at Bryn Mawr, staying out East after graduation to sing and play guitar for the rock band Little Big League. Chongmi eventually came around to Zauner’s scrappy lifestyle as a “starving musician.” While visiting Philadelphia, Chongmi would take Zauner to H Mart to stock up on groceries, shuffling past a massive hole in the wall of Zauner’s apartment to help her marinate short rib in soy sauce and 7Up.
It wasn’t until she flew home to help care for Chongmi that Zauner returned to recording solo music, which she had previously done with the project Little Girl, Big Spoon. Some of the newer stuff evolved into 2016’s “Psychopomp,” her first album as Japanese Breakfast (a band name chosen on a whim, inspired by photos she had been looking at online). The dream-pop record funnels her pain into ballads and synth-heavy tracks, a varied sound she thrust into the cosmic realm with her sophomore effort, 2017’s “Soft Sounds from Another Planet.” It was a bittersweet twist of fate that Zauner’s career took off with a pair of critically acclaimed albums largely about grieving her mother.
“After she passed away, I did feel like I had to really check out emotionally,” she says. “A lot of my second album is about sort of disassociating and not feeling fully there, even as I was experiencing a lot of joyful stuff. . . . It was a really natural thing for me to take six years to finally feel like I’m ready to embrace feeling again, ready to experience highs and lows.”
“Jubilee,” set for a June 4 release from the label Dead Oceans, encompasses a bit of both. The tonal shift is evident from the sunny cover alone, on which Zauner appears surrounded by suspended persimmons (perhaps a nod to her H Mart hauls, along with the instant noodles appearing in both of the self-directed music videos released so far). While tracks such as “Posing in Bondage” carry on themes of loneliness and longing, the lead single, “Be Sweet,” is a jolt to the system with its funky bassline and playful ’80s pop chords.
The record kicks off with a song called “Paprika,” which Zauner describes as having a dreamy opening that builds to a “parade-like chorus.” Her joy is on full display.
“How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers, to captivate every heart?” she sings. “Projecting your visions to strangers who feel it, who listen, who linger on every word — oh, it’s a rush. It’s a rush!”