Admittedly, Michelle Zauner’s favorite part in working on a creative project is starting from scratch. She finds it most fulfilling to see her ideas manifest and come to life, “I like the very initial state, the beginning stages of working on a new project is when I’m the happiest.”
But writing Crying in H Mart was different. Alongside the joy, there was also pain that demanded to be felt; Michelle knew she had to vividly remember her mom, Chongmi, and her passing—the good, bad, and everything in between—and even confront memories she had always carefully tiptoed around for so long.
“The hardest chapter [to write] was called ‘Living and Dying.’ I think the darkest part of that whole was when we found out that my mother’s cancer was terminal and she was going to discontinue her chemotherapy treatment… I blocked out that memory for some time,” said the musician-turned-author Michelle.
But it had to be done.
As Michelle traversed into becoming a successful musician (with a Grammy nominated album) and a New York Times bestselling author—she has become a creative powerhouse: a master of her own creative identity, including the art of, finally, singing and writing happy songs again.
And letting go.
On Courage, Fearlessness, and Dancing with Life and Death
While Michelle is no stranger to sharing her own story as most of the songs she performed as "Japanese Breakfast" are also based from personal experiences, writing a memoir demanded a different level of honesty.
“[Telling my story] I think that’s just naturally the way that I’ve always interacted with art. I feel like that’s always been art that hits me the hardest, it’s always the art I’ve worked on.”
With many applauding Michelle for her courage to lay herself bare, the 32-year-old author revealed during the recently held Fully Booked Chats that it took more than just fearlessness to write her debut book.
“So much of why I wrote this book was because I was so angry that no one had told me this is what death looked like, no one told me this is what a disease or an illness looked like. I just needed to let it all go and the only way I knew how was to explain exactly what happened and try to get to the core of what I was feeling,” she said.
Michelle poured so much of her grief on her work. The aftermath of the process made her appreciate life in a broader sense and view death in a different manner compared to when she was a teenager. “I was obsessed with death in this very angsty and morose way [when I was younger]. After my mom passed away, death just felt so close to me. This fixation on mortality made me an incredibly ambitious person. My mom and aunt died of GI cancer. It runs in my family in a serious way. It’s likely that I might get GI cancer. I just want to make sure that I put everything out; that I do everything I want to before it’s too late.”
With a grin on her face, she added: “My mom used to say, ‘If anything bad actually happened to you, you would feel very differently [about death]. She was so right, and I hate that.
She was so right about everything.”
On Grief and Kimchi: Preserving Memories, Food
After Michelle’s mother passed on, she found herself to be more interested about cooking Korean dishes and going to H Mart. Towards the end of the book, Michelle explained how this little hobby and means to cope has helped her understand her grief better.
“Food is such a sensory rich experience. Towards the end of the book, I talk about changing the course of decay. That’s what kimchi is. You’re preserving something that would have rotted without your care and you’re turning it into something that can be enjoyed and stored and eaten.”
According to Michelle, this has been the absolute metaphor for how one can look at grief because for quite awhile, it has been difficult for her to remember the memories she had with her mom without the trauma brought upon by her illness.
“In writing this book and having an activity like cooking, I was able to preserve and look back at these memories with my mother and kind of create a new life for them that I can preserve and enjoy this way,” shared Michelle.
And if her life, after the passing of her mother, were to be described as synonymous to food–with all these amazing accolades and sold-out shows and roaring crowds–Michelle only had one answer: bittersweet.
“I don’t know if I ever would have achieved this success if my mom hadn't passed away because the book wouldn't exist and these albums wouldn’t exist. I don’t really believe in an afterlife or ghosts, but there’s a deep part of myself that just likes to believe that she knows. I can’t explain it, it makes no sense. But I like to think that she knows and can see it all. I’d like to think that she has a hand in it somehow,” Michelle said.
There is a line in Crying in H Mart that reads: “When I struggled to be good, I could excel at being bold.” She may still have occasional stops at H Mart, crying over painful memories, but at the end of the day, she chooses to move forward. To start again.
It may be a tough journey, but as always, Michelle is on her way.
Watch Michelle Zauner talk about her debut memoir Crying in H Mart as well as her life as a musician and creative on Fully Booked Chats. Get a copy of Crying in H Mart on Fully Booked Online - free delivery applies for orders more than Php 799.