Wisdom and Perspective: Discussing Identity with Michelle Zauner

The Multicultural Student Union hosted Michelle Zauner of the pop band Japanese Breakfast in Johnson Chapel on May 4. Sarah Weiner ʼ24 recounts her wisdom and charm.

Wisdom and Perspective: Discussing Identity with Michelle Zauner
The Multicultural Student Union hosted Michelle Zauner of the pop band Japanese Breakfast in Johnson Chapel on May 4. Sarah Weiner ʼ24 recounts her wisdom and charm. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

“Too many chicken breasts,” responded acclaimed writer and musician Michelle Zauner when asked about the difficulties of her college experience. Met with a chorus of understanding laughter from the audience of Amherst community members, the statement surely left every person in the room relating to the two-time Grammy nominee, if they hadn’t already connected to her remarks about her multicultural identity, trying to fit in, honoring her ancestry and finding self expression through art.

Zauner, the creative mind behind the experimental pop band Japanese Breakfast (known more colloquially as JBrekkie), paid a visit last Wednesday to an eager audience in Johnson Chapel. The event began with an introduction to Zauner’s background and the college’s Multicultural Student Union (MSU), whose e-board organized and hosted the event. The opening remarks, which were made by MSU member Sophie Laurence ’24, highlighted that, in addition to Zauner’s talent as a writer and musician, the MSU’s invitation was in part motivated by Zauner’s reflections on her multiracial and multicultural Korean-American identity, which would take center stage in the subsequent Q&A session.

After the introduction, Zauner read from a portion of her 2021 debut book, “Crying in H Mart.” The memoir tells the story of Zauner finding her relationship to her Korean identity through the loss of her Korean mother to cancer. As she read, many of us clung to new signed copies of “Crying in H Mart” generously provided by AAS funds, some following along in the book as Zauner read, some with their eyes closed — taking in Zauner’s serene tone — but most glued to her presence at the podium. In an excerpt from the second chapter, she shared pieces of her childhood in Oregon with the “brutal” love of her mother, including a frequent saying, “always ‘save 10 percent of yourself.’” Zauner’s mother used this proverb to implore that she never give all of her love to one person, but always reserve some to “fall back on,” demonstrating to a young Zauner a type of love she didn’t see anywhere else.

Following the reading, Laurence led a Q&A session with the writer. The conversation opened with Zauner’s comments on processing grief and dealing with life through art. “I’ve always written for myself,” she said, remarking that “Crying in H Mart” originated in part from the desire to memorialize her mother. The memoir’s journey began with Zauner’s essay “Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi,” winner of Glamour magazine’s 2016 essay contest, and evolved into another essay, “Crying in H Mart,” which was published in The New Yorker in 2018. As Zauner released these shorter works, she realized that “there was so much more to say” about her mother, her culture, grief and Korean food.

For Zauner, “Crying in H Mart” is also an account of the “upkeep in [her] life of that [Korean] culture,” particularly through Korean food. Laurence, also Korean-American, bonded with Zauner over the experience of hunting for the best Korean food, especially in moments of feeling disconnected from their Korean roots. Whether in restaurants, in H Mart, or cooking alongside Korean chef and YouTuber Maangchi in her own kitchen, Zauner emphasized that food is a key way for her to connect with her mother and her Korean identity. At one point, she even got wrapped up in watching an entire 45-minute compilation of food clips in preparation for the film adaptation of her book, she told us. She is currently revising the screenplay and has dreams of luscious, decadent shots of Korean food in the film.

As a memoirist, songwriter and now screenwriter, it would vastly understate Zauner’s ability to say she is adept at storytelling. When Laurence asked about how she crafts her narratives, Zauner's answer was based on transparency. She approaches her stories with the goal of honestly communicating moments of success and failure, of herself and others. Zauner also revealed that she learned how to illuminate details about her own surroundings that she took for granted by working on “Crying in H Mart.” “I wish you would write more about the weather,” her editor told her upon receiving the first draft of the memoir. In response, Zauner reread her favorite novels, looking for inspiration by underlining only the sentences in which the authors talked about the weather.

In addition to her talent as a writer, I would be remiss to end this article without speaking of Zauner’s musical triumphs during her career as Japanese Breakfast. She told us she never dreamed of making it as big as she has. As a college student at Bryn Mawr, Zauner dreamed of playing for 200-seat venues and filling just one room at a Marriott hotel with her team. Now with three albums, two Grammy nominations and a tour bus, Zauner is proud of what she’s accomplished and ecstatic for what is to come, but still remembers what got her here. She mentioned the significance of going on tour with Mitski and Jay Som in 2016. It not only jump-started her career, but it was a huge triumph to see three Asian American women jamming out together across the country. Zauner mentioned how she returns the favor by seeking out emerging artists, particularly of marginalized identities, to open her own shows.

While Zauner’s following is certainly a product of her immense talent, she draws people in with her candor. The anecdotes she related to Laurence during their conversation, like the rest of her writing and music, were real and vulnerable, spoken with touches of humor and careful attention to her audience. She even translated her middle-aged mother’s proverb about the 10 percent rule to appeal to college kids: “Don’t trust a bitch,” Zauner told us, before swiftly returning to her sweet tone to recount more endearing stories about her friends and family.