Michelle Zauner, aka Japanese Breakfast, Embraces Her Identity as a Writer

Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Michelle Zauner has spent the past five years making music under the moniker Japanese Breakfast: 2016 and 2017 were marked by two acclaimed albums, one called Psychopomp, the next Soft Sounds From Another Planet. 2021 has already proven to be a another banner year. Thirty-two-year-old Zauner—who was born in Seoul, South Korea, raised in Eugene, Oregon, and is now based in New York City—made her first network television performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and has released two self-directed music videos from her upcoming album, Jubilee. But her latest project, a memoir called Crying in H Mart, bears special significance. Out today, the book delves into her experiences up until and following the death of her mother, Chongmi, who passed away from cancer in 2014. In it, Zauner details her quest to find meaning in her identity as a biracial Asian-American, examines the way food ties her to the people she loves, and discusses the ways in which she honors her mother’s memory in her own life. Despite the fact that Zauner’s first two records were a reaction to her mother’s passing and the grief she experienced thereafter, she felt she needed to say more. That feeling prompted her to write an article for The New Yorker, which she built upon for the book.

“There was a real need to say things that weren’t covered in music,” Zauner said recently over the phone from her home in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “You’re only allotted, maybe, a thousand words on an album and there was a lot more that needed to be unpacked.”

In her Culture Diet interview, the multihyphenate describes her journey into literature, her favorite Korean photographers, and why the search for identity is a universal story.

When you were younger, you thought you might become a journalist. Has talking to a bunch of journalists for interviews as Japanese Breakfast bolstered that desire, or dampened it?

I never really wanted to be a journalist, honestly. I always wanted to be a writer, and I thought the only way to apply that interest was with journalism—when you’re young and you want to be a writer, it seems like the most practical thing to do with those types of ambitions. So I was in school newspaper, and an editor from middle school to high school. But the more I talk to journalists, the more I would realize I would hate to do what you guys do. There are just so many rules and a specific voice that you have to adopt—and also so much vitriol that you get on the Internet. I don't feel like it would be worth it for me to express myself in that way.

But don’t you think you experience vitriol as a musician, especially as a woman musician?

Yeah. But it’s worth it to pursue what I do. I don't know if I would feel that way if I was writing something that wasn’t completely in my voice, rooted in my absolute interests. There are a lot of journalists who write reviews and they’ll get attacked for them. It’s quite unfair; if I was a journalist, I would be like, I don’t even know if that was worth it! At least if something is in my voice and it’s my story, it’s important for me to explore. At least I feel like I got some therapeutic excavating out of it in a way I don’t know that journalists get to experience—and are getting a bit more flack for it.

What did you read growing up? What did your parents read?

I was a late bloomer when it came to reading. My parents didn’t really read. Neither one of my parents went to college. I did not grow up with any literature in the house at all. My dad might’ve picked up a Tom Clancy book or something occasionally, but it was definitely not something that was in my house. My mom provided me with any book that I wanted, but I just wouldn’t have known what to read at that age. I had no guidance at all until I was in college, I would say.

Once you got to college, what did you start reading?

I read Lorrie Moore and Marilynne Robinson and Jhumpa Lahiri and Richard Ford, John Updike, Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabokov—all of whom I really fell in love with.

And now, you’ve just released your first memoir. You said you wrote Crying in H Mart in dressing rooms and in tour vans, and during a stay in Korea.

There were two major trips to Korea that were treated like writing retreats. They were really essential, and were where I got a lot of concentrated writing done. One was in December of 2017, I was there for six weeks writing. While I was there, I wrote “Crying in H Mart,” the essay that was published in the New Yorker—and I always intended it to be the first chapter of the book, actually. I wrote a lot of material during that six weeks I had been sitting on. In May of 2019, I went back to Korea for three weeks and at that point, some of the things in the book were happening in real time. I finished the first draft of the book there.

Much of Crying in H Mart discusses the search for identity, which is a universal endeavor. But the way your book is written, it feels so specific to being from a biracial background. Do you think a person of non-mixed race could have written a book like this?

My book is so specific to my experience. There was this real fear of preserving my cultural identity in this way that might be somewhat less of a fear if both of your parents were of the same racial background. That element might be somewhat unique to the mixed race experience. But a lot of people can feel the sense of not totally belonging—you don’t have to be of mixed-race heritage to feel those emotions.

Onto the Culture Diet questions. What time do you wake up in the morning and what’s the first thing you do?

I usually wake up around 8 or 8:30 AM and I will pressure my husband to make the coffee—we use a French press and we pretty much exclusively drink ReAnimator coffee, which is a local coffee shop in Philadelphia. Then I’ll dwell in bed for half an hour, usually checking my phone or playing chess—I like to play the app—then getting myself ready to go.

What’s the first thing that you read in the morning?

My email.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

I was just prepping for this livestream I’m doing for the Mission Creek Festival. So I was reading Brandon Taylor’s Filthy Animals, which is a new short story collection that comes out this year.

What are some upcoming albums and books you’re excited about?

The Spirit of the Beehive’s album, which just came out, is incredible. It’s called Entertainment, Death. I don’t really know if it has an audience at W magazine, but maybe it does—there could be some freaky women out there who are into that band. I'm excited for the new Crumb album, Ice Melt. And I don’t think they’re coming out with anything new, but there’s a French band called L’Impératrice that I’ve been really into lately.

In terms of books, I would recommend that Brandon Taylor book of short stories, for sure. Some more recent books that I really enjoyed were Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown. I really want to check out Chang Rae Lee’s new book—I haven't read it, so I can’t really recommend it, but I am going to read that as soon as I have more time. I really loved A Burning by Megha Majumdar, but I think that came out last year. I also enjoyed the new Jenny Hval book, Girls Against God. She’s a musician, and she’s incredible. This is her second book, and she has this very Goth, dark, perverse way of writing that I enjoy.

I saw in a previous interview that you planned to read all of Jane Austen’s book in quarantine.

I failed at that, and will have to revisit it when I’m less busy.

What TV shows have been keeping you up at night?

I've honestly been rewatching Game of Thrones for, like, the 12th time.

Do you remember the last movie you saw in theaters?

I saw Birds of Prey at the Nitehawk theater in Brooklyn. I had just moved to New York, and I had never gone to a movie theater where you could order food and cocktails while watching a film. I was like, why aren’t we doing this all the time? And my friends were just like, it’s not a big deal. But it was a big deal! It was so fun.

What’s the last thing you Googled on your phone?

I was Googling “Nitehawk” to make sure that’s what the theater was called.

Do you remember the last concert that you went to?

I saw Big Thief at Union Transfer.

Your go-to karaoke song?

Madonna, “Like a Prayer.”

Do you listen to podcasts?

I don’t really listen to podcasts—I like one podcast and it’s called Song Exploder. I’ve done so many podcasts and have never heard of any of them, making me realizing that I’m possibly the only person who is in their 30s and doesn’t listen to podcasts.

What is the last piece of art that you bought or ogled?

A24 actually just sent me some postcards that I was ogling right before this call. The artist’s name is Sojung Kim McCarthy, and she made these postcards for the film Minari. They’re very well done—and I love that movie.

Do you have any favorite social media accounts to follow?

I really like Perfume Genius’s Twitter. And my friend Jason Kim is a screenwriter—he used to write for Girls and was the showrunner for Girls and Barry—and he has a very funny series of Instagram stories about his dermatologist, which I enjoy. I follow a lot of Asian photographers, Korean photographers, like Min-hyun Woo and Peter Ash Lee, who shot my album cover.

What is the last thing you do before you go to bed?

I probably pee.