Twenty twenty-one will be a big year for Michelle Zauner, who is a writer, the host of a series of Vice videos about fusion cuisines, the director of a music video for Better Oblivion Community Center (the duo of rock artists Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers), and the soundtrack composer for an upcoming open-world video game. But Zauner is probably best known as Japanese Breakfast, the indie pop artist behind the critically acclaimed albums Psychopomp and Soft Sounds From Another Planet. Her third record, Jubilee, is slated for a summer release after coronavirus-related delays, and her memoir, Crying in H-Mart, was recently published by Knopf.
Crying in H-Mart chronicles Zauner’s experiences taking care of her mother, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, as well as her struggles with her Korean identity in the wake of her mother’s death. She is unflinching and unsparing as she details her mother’s decline. Weaving in childhood memories of growing up as a biracial girl in Eugene, Ore., and the exquisite pleasures of making and enjoying home-cooked meals, Zauner never loses sight of the emotional quandary at the heart of her book: How do you even begin to grieve and heal from a parent’s death, especially if you’ve had a tenuous relationship with them in the past?
Zauner spoke with me on a snowy day this past winter and discussed her formative artistic influences, her struggles in writing the book, and, of course, the role of politics in the life of an Asian American artist. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
RH: Given your many and varied artistic pursuits, what is your relationship to writing and your writing career?
MZ: When I was younger, that natural desire to be a writer—I feel I’ve had it for a very long time. To make a career out of it, a logical, smart step seems like I would get into journalism, so I wrote for the newspaper in middle school and high school, and there was a young person’s column in the city newspaper that I was a part of. But I quickly learned that doesn’t have to be what writing is. In some ways, it seems logical that your parents or your teachers would try to push you into something that’s more of a rational sort of career choice. It took eight years for me to realize I didn’t really like journalism.
What was literary—to me, at least—were these white, gritty, working-class men writing about their experiences in earnest, and that was the writing that I really liked. When I was first exposed to it, I was like, “I want to write like Richard Ford. I want to write like Raymond Carver.” And I never thought that I could ever write about—or was interested in writing about—my own experience, because I wanted to be this neutral observer, and I felt like if I ever wrote about my life, I’d have to have three pages of backstory: And I had a Korean mom and a white dad, and I grew up in America but was born in Korea… I never wanted to talk about that. I wasn’t necessarily ashamed, but I wanted my work to hold its own; I didn’t want it to be a part of any Asian American literature. But when my mom passed away, that was naturally what was on my mind all the time, and it made the most sense to write about it, I guess. It’s so funny that’s what the book ended up being about.
RH: We’ve been circling around various archetypes in our conversation—the worldly superstar singer-songwriter reflecting on their music career, white-guy literariness, Asian American immigrant narratives. How do you navigate cliché as an artist?
MZ: I mean, as a writer, that’s what you strive to avoid, you know? It was definitely at the forefront of my mind: What are the tropes, and how do I avoid them? Or if I do touch on them, I have to do them really, really well—or, at least, that was my hope.
While writing the book, I read a lot of Asian American memoir because it was naturally interesting to me, and it’s something I didn’t read until I was like 29. I basically picked and chose what worked well and tried to do that, and tried to avoid what didn’t work. This book is never supposed to be like, “Woe is me, I’ve endured all this racism and stuff.” But so much of my experience with race has been this constant neurosis about how people perceive me and going against that stereotype, and so I wanted to touch on that. But I definitely was very cautious in the way that I presented it. That, to me, is not really what the story is about.
RH: That’s super interesting, considering how the music video for “Everybody Wants to Love You” played with the image of the traditional Asian girl—in it, you’re wearing hanbok, your hair is up in this gigantic bun, you’re playing guitar with long nails—and ended up being a transgressive cultural moment for a lot of Asian women. Crying in H-Mart does a similar thing, though it’s more subtle in how those clichés are reversed, even in moments that creep close to traditional scenes of filial piety. Even the moniker Japanese Breakfast plays around with the idea of Asianness. What’s the thought process behind all of that?
MZ: I grew up visiting South Korea every other summer, watched anime as a kid, and played a lot of Japanese video games. Those visuals are really nostalgic for me, so naturally still, as an adult, they’re very appealing, and a lot of my work naturally references that. I’m more mindful about it, because it’s hard to know exactly where my lane is and all that, but that kind of imagery has typically been used by a lot of musicians who don’t have Asian heritage to make these really compelling images for themselves. And so part of me was like, “Well, more than anyone else, I deserve to use it,” you know? I want to put that out in the world. And it’s nice to see someone use that space. It’s not exoticizing; it’s leaning into my own heritage, and it felt like a natural thing.
The hanbok in the “Everybody Wants to Love You” video, that’s the hanbok my mom wore to my wedding. And I was like, “I think it’d be really sick if I was wearing it while standing on the bed of a semitruck.” We took that image and ran with it and thought of all the funny things that you wouldn’t think to see someone in a hanbok do. I’m so not what anyone would consider a stereotypical Asian woman in general, and I don’t know how much of that is me growing up with this fear of being like that and going so far in the other direction to avoid ever having that stereotype.
RH: Building off of that, the book discusses how you grappled with femininity and caretaking and came to the realization that your mother was also “difficult” when she was growing up. How were you thinking about all of this when you were writing the book?
MZ: There were certain tropes that I was worried that other Asian Americans would judge me on. (We’ll see if that happens.) But ultimately, I was extremely honest about my life—nothing is exaggerated for the sake of the book; my mom is depicted as she really was. She really wanted me to be the best that I could; she really pushed me very hard. It turned me into a very driven and ambitious person, and I’m grateful for that in retrospect. When I was living in the squalor of the arts, I thought she was going to really freak out about visiting my house and stuff. I was really taken aback by how chill she was about it. After investigating her life, I realized that she knew that the whole point of your 20s is that you pull yourself out of it. But I remember being really surprised by that.
I feel like a lot of the book is also about confronting my failure to be a good caretaker. Why I was psychologically drawn to learning how to cook Korean food after my mom passed away was this guilt and shame that came with not being able to provide for her the way that I thought I would always be able to, and part of that is not being Korean enough to know what she really needed.
RH: Speaking of cooking, your writing on food is very sensorial, very detailed, but it also delves into the emotional experience of making and serving and eating food—all the joy and work that entails. How were you thinking about those types of scenes?
MZ: There’s a lot of pain in the book; it’s sometimes really overwhelming. Food is a natural thing to lean into and find joy and some respite in, and those were the easiest parts for me to write. You put yourself back in there, you make the thing and you eat it, and you can write about that experience because it’s right in front of you.
RH: In the book, you talk about Karen O and the scarcity mentality that you had growing up, which made you feel like there could be only one Asian woman in rock. And on the other hand, the landscape for Asian American art—and music in particular—has changed so much, even in the past four years; instead of the hypervisibility of the one Asian person in music, you now have several. How do you feel about always being grouped with Mitski and Jay Som, especially when that comparison ends up feeling rather specious?
MZ: Part of me is really grateful to be a part of this incredibly talented pool of musicians. In some ways, it makes sense—I owe so much of my career to Mitski because she brought me on for her tour, and she and Jay Som have become two very great friends and confidants in this industry. When I got to a place where I was in a headlining band, it was really important to me to be really mindful of using the power that I’ve been given to try to pay that forward. I wanted to try to make the gender ratio as 50/50 as possible. I had been on tours before where there were like 15 guys and I was the one girl. That’s part of the thing that makes it a lot easier: Once you start to break down those barriers, other people feel a real need to help each other out. That creates, ideally, more diversity as we move forward.
Jay Som and Mitski and I all make very different music, and we all have very different skill sets, but we still make indie pop music. I never would have thought that I would get to tour with Asian women who are completely talented in entirely different ways on one bill. I never thought I would ever see the day that that happens. And that was my first tour as Japanese Breakfast! And it’s been a pretty charmed time ever since. I mean, I understand why that could be frustrating: If they were shitty musicians, I would hate it. But they’re both so talented; I love both of their music. I listen to their albums all the time. So it’s not a terrible thing to be grouped in with them. They make me look better!
I have influences that I’m surprised have never come up as comparisons. But they’re the kind of musicians where it’s like, “Who do you think you are that you think you would be compared to them,” you know? Aside from Karen O: Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Built to Spill, Elliott Smith—those are the bands that I grew up really admiring and that I feel have a direct influence on my songwriting style. For this new record, I was really inspired by Björk and Kate Bush. But you know, I’m sure that Jay Som and Mitski also have those influences, and in some ways, it also makes sense that it would sound somewhat similar.
RH: You’ve been donating profits from some of your merch sales to organizations like the Bail Project. As an artist, what is your approach to politics?
MZ: I felt for a very long time that I wasn’t someone that was particularly interested in politics. With the Internet and all the discourse available, that feels very lazy. Before 2019, it was like, “I’m an artist—that’s my main thing. Any time that I take away from it, my art will suffer.” But there’s also always this feeling that I need to do more. There’s this guilt that you have—and then when your entire schedule gets wiped out [because of the pandemic], it feels like an apt time to start getting more involved. This is going to be a moment in history that we’ll all look back on and think, “What did I do for other people during this time?” There’s a real sense of shame if you look back and think, “I hid and did nothing.” I try to do more because of that, I guess. I don’t feel like I’m a great activist or whatever, but I do strive to be better. And I’m grateful for the dialogue that exists in the world and want to become more involved. I also feel there’s a real pressure to use a platform you’ve built, once you have one. And all great artists, I think, have been involved in politics in some way.
RH: Could you say a little bit more about that pressure? What about the last year has pushed you to think more and deeper about politics?
MZ: Obviously, the crazy wealth gap that exists in our country; health care not being universal; and Black Lives Matter. The racist hate crimes against Asian elderly people—it’s all really fucked up. It’s hard to know what exactly you can do, and it’s a constant struggle to figure that out. And I’ve been trying to be better and educate myself. Trying to figure out how to share information, whether it’s defunding the police or mutual aid; trying to reallocate my resources and my privilege. Trying to showcase for charities is important. I’m figuring out my role and balancing that in my life.