The musician behind Japanese Breakfast writes a book; speaking at the Boswell event


In 2018, Michelle Zauner wrote a New Yorker essay to find solace in the aisles of H Mart after her mother, a Korean immigrant, died of cancer. She expanded the essay, and last month Knopf released her 239-page memoir that looks at family relationships, self-identity, and Korean cuisine.

On Tuesday May 4th, Zauner will be doing a virtual event hosted by Boswell Books and 88Nine Radio Milwaukee. Radio Milwaukee Music Director Justin Barney will strike up a conversation with Zauner at 7 p.m. Register for this virtual event here.

Zauner is the solo musician behind “Japanese Breakfast”. Under the pseudonym, she has released two albums and will release a third, Jubilee, which will be released in June.

OnMilwaukee recently spoke with Zauner about his experience writing “Crying in H Mart”, which is available through Boswell Book Company, and more.

OnMilwaukee: As someone who has wanted to write a memoir for a long time, but struggles with how my mom would take it, I hesitated. I wonder if you are worried about how your family, or the people you wrote about, would react to the book?

Michelle Zauner: I certainly had some concerns, but I feel like being an artist is a lot about your willingness to go, and the most significant is often what terrifies you the most, this that makes you ashamed and hesitant. The best I could do was try to present myself and the other characters as completely as possible, good and bad.

How do you remember your life? Is it important for you to understand every detail or do you allow yourself some leeway?

In a way, what a book can hold is actually such a small part of your life. A lot of what’s in the book are memories that were super formative and marked me for a long time, then took the time to dig into them and extrapolate, and you discover a lot in that process. I found both to be incredibly important and I feel true to the way things turned out, only incorporating moments that fit the narrative, theme, and feelings of the book.

What is your favorite part of your memoir? What was the most difficult to write?

I really like the first third of the book, because it was the most pleasant to write and relive, those very beautiful memories of my childhood, the funny idiosyncrasies of my mother’s character and my upbringing. I really like the penultimate chapter, the passage on fermentation and controlled death and how it relates to the preservation of memories. Living and Dying has been by far the most difficult chapter to write and has undergone many revisions. This is the chapter where my family goes to Korea after learning that my mother’s cancer is terminal and everything is bad. In the audiobook recording, this was actually the only chapter where I had to stop and give a good cry. It still stings a bit.

What aspects of Korean culture do you incorporate the most into your personal life?

Of course, the food. Grocery shopping, trying new Korean restaurants, cooking at home, these are all little rituals I perform to interact with my Korean heritage. Before the pandemic, visiting Korea at least once every two years and making sure to stay in touch with my aunt was very important and I look forward to being able to return there someday soon.

Are you going to write another book?

Would love to, but no plans, thoughts or deadlines yet. I’m trying to take advantage of the release of this one for once.

What happens with the Japanese breakfast?

We have a new record coming out on June 4th called Jubilee. We’re getting the new songs ready for the concerts soon, planning rehearsals for a tour of the US in late summer / fall. I’m adding new members to bring bigger arrangements to life.

How was writing this book different from writing music?

It gave me the space to dive a little deeper into a story, more space to investigate events and people. I find the music much more intuitive and writing the prose a much more exhilarating structural process. Much of the writing work is done in editing.


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