“It certainly helps that I’ve memorialized her in this way and it’s been embraced and distributed in a way that I feel her”
Last Wednesday, Michelle Zauner, author of the bestselling memoir Crying in H Mart, visited Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre as a part of her nationwide book tour. She was joined onstage by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, who asked Zauner a series of challenging, introspective questions about race, grief, and memories.
Crying in H Mart details Zauner’s relationship with her mother, who died in 2014 after being diagnosed with a rare form of squamous-cell carcinoma. Zauner remembers her mother’s affection as “tougher than tough love,” a “brutal, industrial-strength” love. Though they had a tumultuous relationship in her teenage years, Zauner and her mother grew close after Zauner left for college. Notably, they shared a passion for cooking and eating Korean food, and after her mother’s passing, Zauner made an effort to learn how to cook Korean food in an effort to stay connected to her Korean heritage.
Though Zauner has been speaking about her mother’s death for years, starting with an essay she wrote for Glamour that landed her the initial book deal, she sometimes feels worried that she is distancing herself from the event and its emotions.
“It’s been almost nine years since my mother died and I’ve spoken about it so much, I’ve written about it so much, I talk about it and think about it so much and analyze it and investigate it to the point where sometimes I worry I’m taking something away from myself by publicizing it,” Zauner said.
Still, she said that when she sees something that reminds her of her mother or visits her mother’s grave, she still finds herself inconsolable.
“It makes me feel like I was truly loved and I really loved someone when I cry for her, and I still have that emotion that is really deep, but it’s not so heavy that I can’t wake up every morning and do what I have to do and live my life,” Zauner said. “It certainly helps that I’ve memorialized her in this way and it’s been embraced and distributed in a way that I feel her—even though it goes against every sensible, spiritual, secular belief that I have.”
One audience member asked, “Do you think you’ll ever get over the grief you feel when someone is sick or when they end up passing away?” To which Zauner replied, “I felt very guilty about the caregiving process—I felt like a real failure. I don’t feel that way anymore, and I think part of it is, in writing this book.”
The author added, “I had to recognize that I had no guidance. I didn’t have any peers that had an immigrant parent, that had this kind of divide in their life. I had no reference point in media about children with immigrant parents and how that’s different culturally. I forgive her and I forgive myself for being at odds with one another—of course we were, we had no idea.”
Following her mother’s death, Zauner released the 2016 album Psychopomp with a picture of her mother as the album cover. The project allowed Zauner to quit her day job and pursue music full-time, and she credits her mother for her lucky break.
“My life has been so charmed, creatively and professionally, after she passed,” Zauner said. “It’s really hard to not feel like she’s behind it.”
Crying in H Mart has seen incredible success since its release in 2021, dominating the New York Times Best Seller List for over a year, and is now being adapted into a film. In addition to Zauner’s work as a memoirist, she is also a Grammy-nominated musician as the lead vocalist for the indie pop band Japanese Breakfast.
Most of the dates of Zauner’s book tour have completely sold out. The Brookline Booksmith, which organized last week’s event, estimated that there were around 400 people in attendance.
During the talk, Zauner also said that she sometimes struggles with feelings of guilt about her wild teenage behavior. As she’s grown older, she sympathizes with what she put her mother through and acknowledges the challenges she faced growing up biracial in the Pacific Northwest.
“Some hormonal, weird thing happens where, all of a sudden, your mother’s touch is just like an iron and you can’t stand it,” Zauner said. “It’s so sad—as I grow older and I begin to imagine my life as a mother someday, I can’t imagine how heartbreaking that experience must be, to have your little guy turn away from you like that.”
Ponette recently graduated from Boston University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Journalism. She enjoys writing about music, movies, culture and cool people. In her free time, she loves consulting Wirecutter, listening to Phoebe Bridgers and playing with her dog, Honey.