Memoirist and musician Michelle Zauner sat down with writer Emily Mills in Madison’s Barrymore Theater on Friday night for a compelling conversation about Zauner’s 2021 memoir and debut book, “Crying in H Mart.”
Zauner, widely known as the lead singer of indie pop band Japanese Breakfast, began her book tour in early 2023. Considering the high number of sold out upcoming shows, it’s no surprise that there was not one empty seat in the Barrymore when she took the stage.
“Crying in H Mart” manages to circle an astounding variety of topics while sticking to a streamlined plot. Zauner’s spoken words did the same Friday. In response to several challenging questions from Mills, she covered grief, family, her Korean-American identity and food.
Like any writer, it took Zauner many drafts to arrive at the literary wonder that is the published version of “Crying in H Mart.” She said the recollection memoir-writing requires was difficult due to the story’s emotional weight.
“The first draft I wrote was so angry… angry at people for caring too much, for not caring enough,” Zauner said.
Zauner’s memoir focuses on her relationship with her mother, who died of cancer when Zauner was 25. It explores grief as it is felt through relationships with parents, friends and partners. While the book is certainly a heavier one, the variety of people at the event proved how accessible Zauner’s writing is.
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The book’s popularity has earned it countless awards, including The New York Times’ “Book of the Year” and a spot on President Barack Obama’s “Favorite Books of the Year.”
Mills and many others in the audience shared how “Crying in H Mart” has become one of their favorite reads by helping them reconcile with the loss of a loved one.
Zauner, touched by the crowd’s vulnerability, had a few words for the way grief has changed her outlook on the world.
“There’s a line in my book that I liked so much that I ended up turning it into a song lyric later,” Zauner said. “Grief splits the world into two… those who have experienced it and those who haven’t.”
The author’s world was split in two long before her mother’s death, Zauner said. Growing up with a Korean mother and American father in Eugene, Oregon, she had to find lifelong struggles to feel comfortable with both her Korean identity and her individuality.
Reflecting the end of her memoir’s upbeat pivot into her blossoming career in music, Zauner closed with some thoughts on how her creativity has helped her make more sense of life. She cited Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as inspiring her throughout the process.
“My family had always been so involved in each others’ lives, and maybe that’s partly because of who I am… the kind of music I am interested in and the kind I am making has definitely helped me find myself as an individual,” Zauner said.
The event was sponsored by the Wisconsin Book Festival.