“Save your tears for when your mother dies,” is a proverb that singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner heard a lot from her Korean mum, Chongmi, when she was growing up in Eugene, Oregon. Her friends had coddling “Mommy-Moms”, always at the ready with a white lie or a verbal affirmation; her own mother, by contrast, provided love tougher than tough. “It was brutal, industrial-strength,” Zauner writes in her first book, a vibrant, soulful memoir that binds her own belated coming-of-age with her mother’s untimely death, and serves up food, music and, yes, tears alongside insights into identity, grief and the primal intensity of the mother-daughter bond.
While she wasn’t about to whisk Zauner off to hospital when she fell out of a tree – or, indeed, help her up – Chongmi showed her maternal devotion in other ways. Chief among these was sharing the joy she found in food, and Zauner early on hit on eating as a way of basking in her approval. Biennial trips to visit her grandmother in Seoul were full of opportunities to flaunt her precocious palate, gobbling down everything from spicy soups and exotic banchan side dishes to octopus tentacles still pulsing with life. “This is how I know you’re a true Korean,” her mother would tell her.
In fact, Zauner is only half-Korean, a detail that makes her story more interesting, and also made the reality of her childhood more challenging. In high school, the only Asian kid in her class, she worried that being part-Korean would define her wholly and sought to disown it in favour of whiteness.
In her senior year, her always complex relationship with her mother broke down completely – as did Zauner herself. The distance that an east coast college subsequently put between them proved healing, and food became ever more important as “an unspoken language”. Just a few years later, when Chongmi was only 56, the cancer diagnosis came.
The book’s middle chapters make for difficult reading, and yet Zauner never loses sight of the person her mother was. Chongmi is beautifully observed – a woman with a serious QVC habit and unwavering belief in the power of appearances, she counsels her only child to “save 10% of yourself”, and takes secrets to her grave. And then there’s Zauner’s American father, a former addict who later deals with his own grief by moving to Thailand, “filling the void with warm beaches and street-vended seafood and young girls who can’t spell the word problem”.
That droll tone is a vital ingredient in Zauner’s prose, but it doesn’t obscure her honesty, even when it comes to her motives for rushing to her mother’s sickbed. “I would be everything she ever needed. I would make her sorry for ever not wanting me to be there,” she confides, confronting her heart’s darker yearnings.
Zauner is the frontwoman of the band Japanese Breakfast, and music features here almost as prominently as food – not just music, either, but sound in general. It’s her husband’s laugh that she first falls for – “a high-pitched, honking sound that was like a cross between a Muppet and a five-year-old girl”. And the “Korean sob” echoes throughout these pages, a “pained vibrato that breaks apart into staccato quarter notes, descending as if it were falling off a series of small ledges”.
After her mother’s death, she turns to cooking. Slowly, with the help of YouTube tutorials, she begins reconnecting with memories of her mother through food, preserving a cultural inheritance that she had once felt deeply ambivalent about, but now worries will vanish. She still cries when stocking up on ingredients in H Mart, the Korean supermarket, but discovers that making kimchi is far more therapeutic than any shrink.
It’s this modest scepticism that sets Zauner’s book apart from so many other grief memoirs. She isn’t looking for readily formulated fixes, and instead remains open to truths that are hard to put into words in any language. The final scene, unfolding in a Seoul karaoke bar, finds her singing along to a local hit from her mother’s youth. The Korean characters are moving too fast across the screen but, even so, its melody feels to her like remembrance.