The time we’re living in right now is one of both poignant grief and expansive joy. During the month of May, I was aided in feeling both of those things by one particular book and one particular album, both by the same person: Michelle Zauner, also known as Japanese Breakfast.
Zauner’s debut memoir Crying In H Mart was released in April, to much critical acclaim. The book recounts Zauner’s fraught but fiercely loving relationship with her mother Chongmi, a Korean immigrant, and charts Chongmi’s battle with cancer and eventual death when Zauner was 25. Chongmi shows her love for Zauner through food, and throughout the memoir Zauner is served Korean dishes before learning to cook them herself after her mother dies—hence the title, which references the Korean grocery chain that stocks a plethora of Asian staples for United States residents.
A lot of Oregonians got excited about Crying in H Mart because much of the book is set in Eugene, where Zauner grew up, and Portland makes a few quick cameos. But my favorite parts were inevitably the trips Zauner took with her mother to Seoul every couple years to visit relatives. Zauner perfectly captures the excitement of traveling, trying new food and taking in the bustling city—but there’s familiarity around the edges, bits of language she recognizes and flavors she knows but can’t quite place. Zauner’s prose is heavily peppered with Korean names for dishes, explaining their components but never pandering too heavily to readers who aren’t versed in Korean cuisine.
But the heart of the book, of course, is about grief: The grief Zauner feels watching her mother’s health decline, and the grief after her death, made more acute by the fact that Zauner and Chongmi had recently finally reconciled after an adolescent rough patch in their relationship. But rather than wallowing in pure sentiment, Zauner writes the particulars of her grief: A strange visit to an apple orchard right after she dies, because it’s one of the few places in Eugene they’d never gone to together; eschewing weekly counseling sessions and teaching herself to make kimchi instead, its own form of therapy. After a year in which we’ve all felt grief of some kind—if not for a person, then for a way of life—it’s those idiosyncrasies, the weird ways our minds find to process the onslaught, that ring the most true.
Near the end of the book, Zauner finds a stack of old family photos that her mother had kept in a small fridge she used specifically for storing kimchi. It’s a perfect image for Crying In H Mart, in which the flavors and textures of grief collide with that of food.
Not content with merely publishing a powerhouse memoir, Zauner also released her third album as musical artist Japanese Breakfast this year—in fact, it’s out today, June 4. Titled Jubilee, the album is billed as a sort of ode to joy, after her first two albums were meditations on grief heavy on references to her mother.
Jubilee feels less literally autobiographical than Japanese Breakfast’s earlier work, and considerably more danceable, flirting with synthy pop while still heavy on poetic lyrics, as in the track “Posing in Bondage”: When the world divides into two people/ Those who have felt pain and those who have yet to/ And I can't unsee it, although I would like to.”
Those lyrics, nestled in the middle of such a purposefully joyful album, make Jubilee feel all the more perfect for our times. Zauner’s been through some shit, she’s felt pain, and she knows she can’t unfeel it. She’s not ignoring it, but through some processing, she’s found a way to live with it, and be joyful anyway.