‘Crying In H Mart: A Memoir’ By Michelle Zauner [Book Review]

crying in h mart michelle zauner penguin shop
Image: Penguin Shop

When I first heard Michelle Zauner was releasing a book, I just couldn’t contain my happiness. Suddenly, there was something to look forward to again. Life seemed worth living.

It was in 2018 when I first came across Zauner’s writing. I was stalking this girl who had been flirting with a then-boyfriend and something on her Facebook timeline caught my attention: a New Yorker essay called “Crying In H Mart.” Curious about the type of essay that kind of girl would be interested in, I clicked on the link and read the piece. And I fell in love with it, to the point that I almost forgot about my mission.

In other words, I dropped the whole stalking thing and just went into fangirling mode all of a sudden because, why the hell not, this Zauner girl’s writing turned out to be amazing. Of course, I also learned that she was also a musician performing under the name Japanese Breakfast. Before I knew it, I was already listening to her songs.

A few months before the release of Zauner’s book, I sent an email to Fully Booked to ask how I could get my hands on a copy of it as soon as possible. That was just how excited I was. According to their representative, I should email them again two weeks before its April release, which I did. And so, in just less than a month after the book came out, my copy of “Crying in H Mart: A Memoir” arrived.

There was a bit of a problem, though. I wasn’t done writing a major paper for grad school yet, and it was due in a few weeks. Since I didn’t want to read the book while worrying about something else, I decided to just read it once my paper was over.

As expected, it was so worth the wait. Zauner didn’t hold back in her memoir, no wonder I cried many times while reading it. It reminded me of what creative writing mentors told me many times in the past: Don’t write about something you’re not ready to talk about. Why? Because this book showed me how rich a piece could really be if the author would just stop second-guessing themselves and just write about what needs to be written.

I was especially moved by Zauner’s honesty in discussing how scared she had been since learning about her mother’s cancer diagnosis. She also did a great job capturing the complexity of her relationship with her mom and how she navigated it amid the cancer battle and even after her passing. There was also the tricky relationship she had with her father who was also scared throughout the process.

To be honest, it’s not an easy book. I easily got exhausted reading about the routines they had established in the household just to make sure her mom’s needs would be taken care of. Even the part about Zauner’s wedding, which had been planned considering her mother’s numbered days on Earth, was not easy to follow at all. Although there were lots of beautiful moments in them, which are, unsurprisingly, captured perfectly in the book, read these parts with one thing at the back of my mind: Things would be painful again in no time.

When the book gets to the death of her mother, Zauner is also able to paint a picture of grief in all its messy glory. Yet, the narrative remains realistic by reminding its readers about some things the living is left to do after someone passes, yes, those things people need to hold their tears for because someone has to do them so they can properly say goodbye to the departed.

In Zauner’s case, she had to change her mom’s clothing after the latter had died and deal with the possessions the mother had left behind. There were funeral arrangements, too, and reading about all these things reminded me of the deaths we had in our family as well as the tasks we had to complete before we could even cry our hearts out.

And, of course, there’s the huge chunk of the book that gives readers a glimpse of what took place weeks, months, and even years after the mother’s death. She and her father took a trip to Vietnam, which didn’t really go well as they were both still grieving and exhausted. Eventually, their house was sold and, in a way, they had to let go of some precious memories attached to the property. Her father flew to Asia. Zauner, on the other hand, had to go on living. She continued pursuing music and, ironically, her career took off just when her mother, her No. 1 critic, and fan, could no longer be with her.

Readers also get a peek into Zauner’s experiences as she attempted to strengthen her connection to her South Korean heritage at a time when her mother, her strongest link to it, was no longer around. The narrative takes readers to her trip to Korea, during which she learned a lot about her mom and their many similarities and bonded with relatives who, like her, were also grieving.

The book also takes its readers on Zauner’s journey as she learned how to cook Korean food, how she found comfort in dishes, both familiar and not, and the way recipes and cooking itself further fleshed out her complicated relationship with her mother and her heritage.

It was through reading about all this that I fell in love even more with Zauner’s New Yorker essay, which, of course, is also the first chapter in this book. Learning about her journey from that stubborn child to a hardworking daughter, the sacrifices she made for her mother, and what had transpired after her mom’s demise allowed me to have a better understanding of the sadness she now feels whenever she visits the Korean-American supermarket chain and all the other emotions and complexities such sadness entails.

After finishing this book, I had to pause and think about my experiences after my father’s death as well and realized there was so much more to unpack from that part of my life. I also couldn’t help but think about how we had bonded food and how he had basically influenced my eating habits despite the fact that I had not lived with him. 

In other words, I can tell that this book is just so moving and thought-provoking, especially for me who sees food not just as something you put in your mouth but also as a vessel of memories and emotions.

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