Podcast 334: Happier Podcast Book Club: Writer and Musician Michelle Zauner Talks about Family, Identity, and Food in Her Memoir “Crying in H Mart”

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Happier Podcast Book Club: Last year, we launched our Happier Podcast Book Club, and for this episode, we talked about the brilliant memoir Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (AmazonBookshop).

Michelle Zauner is known as a singer and guitarist who creates dreamy indie pop under the name Japanese Breakfast with releases like Psychopomp, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, and just this year, Jubilee.

Now she’s written a bestselling memoir that has generated a tremendous amount of buzz, ever since she published an excerpt in The New Yorker. The official description:

In this exquisite story of family, food, grief, and endurance, Michelle Zauner proves herself far more than a dazzling singer, songwriter, and guitarist. With humor and heart, she tells of growing up one of the few Asian American kids at her school in Eugene, Oregon; of struggling with her mother's particular, high expectations of her; of a painful adolescence; of treasured months spent in her grandmother's tiny apartment in Seoul, where she and her mother would bond, late at night, over heaping plates of food.

As she grew up, moving to the East Coast for college, finding work in the restaurant industry, and performing gigs with her fledgling band--and meeting the man who would become her husband--her Koreanness began to feel ever more distant, even as she found the life she wanted to live. It was her mother's diagnosis of terminal cancer, when Michelle was twenty-five, that forced a reckoning with her identity and brought her to reclaim the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her.

The book has a brilliant cover.

We had a terrific conversation with Michelle Zauner. We covered questions and topics such as:

  • For people who don’t know, what does “Crying in H Mart” mean?
  • What is her favorite Korean dish that her mother made for her?
  • Growing up, did she realize that her mother expressed love through sharing food?
  • What would her mother say about her music career?
  • How, after many years of struggle and after her mother's death, she began to achieve her dreams
  • How she quotes her mother saying,You know what I realized? I’ve just never met someone like you.”
  • How her mother always used to say, “Save 10 percent of yourself.” “'Even from Daddy, I save,'” she added. Inspired by Michelle Zauner's observation, I quote from Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway (Amazon, Bookshop):

    And there is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf; and that one must respect, thought Clarissa, watching him open the door; for one would not part with it oneself, or take it, against his will, from one’s husband, without losing one’s independence, one’s self-respect—something, after all, priceless.

  • How her mother's interest in self-care and beauty was always for herself
  • How she knows her mother, her father, and others better now, after having written the memoir
  • Her father's response to the memoir—we mention Michelle's Harper's Bazaar piece, "When my mother died, my father quickly started a new life. I chose to forgive him."
  • How writing the book supported her creativity as a musician, and how her music supported her creativity for her writing
  • How this memoir felt like it was written not in hindsight, but in media res
  • She describes how lines from Japanese Breakfast's song "Rugged Country" appear in the book

Some particularly interesting comments from Michelle:

  • “Every time I came home from college, my mother would always prepare kalbi, fresh rice, red leaf lettuce, ssamjang, and dongchimi.”
  • “You begin to return to your parents, and understand them in a deeper way, when you’re in your twenties.”
  • “She was always trying to protect me from failure and financial reality, and for mother to see what has happened, would be really astounding for her.”
  • “You learn how to love someone the way that you were loved by your parents.”
  • “To a certain extent, we all keep things from other people, and different people know different parts of ourselves.”
  • “She always taught me that beauty and self-care should be things that you do for yourself, and not for anyone else.”
  • “In writing a memoir, you have to be fair…if you’re going to throw anyone under the bus, you have to make sure to do it to yourself.”
  • “In order to get full perspective and multi-dimensional characters, you have to explore all parts of a person’s backstory.”
  • “In writing this book, I was able to understand where people were coming from in such a deeper way, and forgive myself and other people for things I’d been upset about for a really long time.”
  • “It’s pretty common when you’re going through the care-taking process: one person feels the need to really take a lot of the responsibility, and the other person is a bit more able to fall apart.”
  • “In writing this book, it made me understand my father’s perspective a bit more.”
  • “Having the experience of writing albums definitely made me feel more comfortable about taking on a larger creative project.”
  • “Fans of Japanese Breakfast, my band, will notice that there are some borrowed lines in the book.”
  • “With music, you’re painting a very impressionistic picture that can be taken in many different ways, whereas with a book, you have to guide the reader to feel and understand.”

Tendency: Michelle Zauner is an Upholder.

Michelle Zauner's Try This at Home: Cut the top off a carton of eggs. Simple but helpful!

Remember: Whenever it is and wherever you are, there’s always a book waiting for you.


Resources:

  • Since we started the Happier podcast more than six years ago, we’ve seen that people really want to talk about the Four Tendencies framework. More than three million people have taken my Four Tendencies Quiz to find out whether they’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel. I’ve created a resources hub about the Four Tendencies on my site, which features a brand new video series. I sat down with award-winning journalist Ron Lieber, world-renowned chef Carla Hall, personal finance expert Ramit Sethi, and podcaster Jordan Harbinger to talk about the Four Tendencies framework. Head to gretchenrubin.com/fourtendencies to watch our fascinating conversations and learn how an Obliger, a Questioner, an Upholder, and a Rebel have each harnessed their Tendency and found success in their own way.
  • We still have a lot of time to make progress on our “21 for 2021” lists. If you’d like a sheet on which to record your list and check items off as you go, visit gretchenrubin.com/resources.

What we’re reading:

  • Elizabeth: Do You Mind If I Cancel? by Gary Janetti (Amazon, Bookshop)
  • Gretchen: Conversations with James Baldwin edited by Fred Standley and Darnell Pratt (Amazon, Bookshop)

Quote From the Podcast

“In writing a memoir, you have to be fair…if you’re going to throw anyone under the bus, you have to make sure to do it to yourself.”
Michelle Zauner

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