photo & text by nacrowe
the recently published CRYING IN H MART (KNOPF, 2021) by MICHELLE ZAUNER of INDIE ROCK band JAPANESE BREAKFAST fame, is one of the most heartbreaking memoirs i have read in recent memory. it deals primarily with the loss of her mother from cancer and the primal toll that trauma took on her sense of identity, especially given their tumultuous relationship and ZAUNER's status of being biracial. it is that sense of bifurcation that makes her personal narrative so compelling, being caught between two communities, two cultures and ultimately two identities. with her death there is a sense of finality that is all too cruel and just plain brutal.
as a quick aside, i used to teach at an international school in JAPAN that was primarily setup by the TURKISH community to service students that were normally socially ostracized in JAPANESE schools, i.e. students who had only one parent that was JAPANESE. i had students that were half-KOREAN, half-TURKISH, half-CANADIAN, half-UZBEK, half-MONGOLIAN and so on. the suicide rate for students such as these in private and state JAPANESE schools is shockingly high due to constant unceasing bullying (especially online) and a broader cultural sense that they didnt belong. id tell them about my own family's multiple origins (IRELAND, UKRAINE, ENGLAND) and how they weren't half anything, they were 100% both. they were special because they belonged to two communities. anyway, thats my spiel on that.
ultimately for ZAUNER it is presented that food and the customs, sustenance, preparation, appreciation, and coded messages therein, are what bridged that emotional and psychic gap with her mother. both in life and in death. food is the weapon her mom used against her as a means of control as a child and rowdy teenager and it is food that paradoxically served as a form of therapy for ZAUNER in holding on to the memory of her mother after her death. in many ways this memoir is an intensely creative examination for food as a language, a means of communicating love, hope, fear, insecurity, passion, sorrow and defiance in the face of life's triumphs and tribulations. for ZAUNER specifically it is provides a sense of rootedness and identity, which is pretty profound. when returning to KOREA for the first time after the death of her mother, it is food that communicates her identity as KOREAN by her relatives where word cant, given the language barrier.
its hard to even unpack the complicated relationship between parents and children, notwithstanding that of the special subset of mothers with their daughters. but the relationship of ZAUNER with her mother comes across as especially intimate despite their estrangement and cultural gap that separated them. and the manner in which food is presented as that bridge is especially touching. it makes what would be a sad story about death and displacement into a heartfelt celebration of a woman who showed her love and commitment to her daughter, however arduous, heavy-handed and miscommunicated at times, through the medium of food.
easily one of the best memoirs i've come across since starting this blog. well worth investigation to self-described foodies and non-foodies alike. a remarkable achievement.
art by nacrowe
there's something about JAPANESE BREAKFAST that really hits a sweet spot with me.
as i went on about before in my PATTI SMITH piece, i think women really have it difficult dealing with bullshit double standards regarding beauty when establishing themselves as artists in the music industry. what makes it worse is that there is a pressure EVERYONE feels in today's hyper-competitive digital marketplace to water-down your vision to the lowest common denominator, which is why you see many female pop artists resorting to tactics of being outrageous for the sake of getting attention, which only further reinforces the whole vicious cycle.
thats why it is always refreshing to come across female songwriters that have a vision and personality that doesn't feel group tested to death. i'd put JAPANESE BREAKFAST among a great lineage of female fronted rock groups that write their own material including that of WARPAINT, LA LUZ, GIRL IN A COMA, THE COATHANGERS, DUM DUM GIRLS, BEST COAST and LE BUTCHERETTES.
what separates this recent MICHELLE ZAUNER-led solo project to me is the vulnerability of her lyrics which deal with themes like loss and feeling inadequate, both topics i TOTALLY identify with. her 2016 debut PSYCHOPOMP was written as a way to come to terms with the passing of her mother and its a heartbreaking recording which painfully expresses the emptiness and detachment felt after losing a loved one. the album almost doubles as an effort to reconnect with her essence, much in the same way MASTODON did with their CRACK THE SKYE and THE HUNTER albums. her 2017 effort SOFT SOUNDS FROM ANOTHER PLANET finds her really delving into lilting delicate soundscapes that borrow heavily from SHOEGAZE that perfectly support her lyrics that concerned themselves with new beginnings and relationships, which makes sense given her recent marriage. she expresses the joy of new love as effectively as the sadness of sudden loss. all in all i can't wait to hear what she has next in store.
a dynamite songwriter that doesn't hold back from exposing her insecurities. how can you not be supportive of that?