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At One Book keynote, Michelle Zauner talks about her grief and joy

The Japanese Breakfast lead singer and guitarist wrote about her mother-daughter relationship “Crying in H Mart”
michelle zauner
Keynote events with Michelle Zauner (right) had a Q&A format and were moderated by history professor and One Book faculty chair Ji-Yeon Yuh, who teaches Asian American history and Asian diasporas, race and gender, and oral history. Photo by Joel Wintermantle

Musical artist and author Michelle Zauner welcomed star-struck packed houses on both Evanston and Chicago Northwestern campuses on Wednesday to share thoughts about this year’s One Book selection, “Crying in H Mart.”

Zauner spoke to approximately 1,250 students, faculty and staff about her New York Times bestselling memoir, which explores grief and identity through a complex mother-daughter relationship. Zauner is also the lead vocalist and guitarist for Japanese Breakfast, a Grammy-nominated alternative pop band, and received thunderous applause and cheering as she came onstage.

“Many people can relate to the story and have a personal and intense feeling toward their relationship with their mother or mother figure,” Zauner told Northwestern Now. “When you write for yourself, you end up writing for so many people.”

The talks had a Q&A format and were moderated by history professor and One Book One Northwestern faculty chair Ji-Yeon Yuh, who teaches Asian American history and Asian diasporas, race and gender, and oral history.

Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine faculty Clyde Yancy, the vice dean for diversity and inclusion and chief of cardiology, welcomed the group on the Chicago campus. He spoke of the importance and need for us to join together in community during these difficult times.

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When you write for yourself, you end up writing for so many people.”

Author Michelle Zauner

“This is the first time an Asian American author has been chosen for One Book,” Yuh said. “It was an honor to be the faculty chair.”

In addition to Korean identity, the pair talked about food, music, “escaping the grief-girl narrative” and plans for her second book, which Zauner will write as she takes a musical hiatus to live in Seoul, South Korea, her mother’s hometown, where the two traveled together when Zauner was a child and where her aunt still lives.

Zauner’s parents met in Seoul in the early 1980s, they married and settled in Eugene, Oregon, where the author returned as an adult to care for her mother, Chongmi, through rounds of chemotherapy. While their relationship was often fraught, tested by cultural contradictions that left Zauner feeling “lost in translation,” mother and daughter found common ground and joy in Korean food.

Zauner shared with the audience that the day of her visit to Northwestern, Oct. 18, marked nine years since her mother’s death. She spoke to the “deep need” she felt to write the book following her mother’s death, even though it took her five years — and lots of revisions — to complete.

“I think it needed to be that raw in a way — that’s just what that book is,” Zauner said. “And I think in a way, I'll always be writing about her and there will be a different version of it that’s more collected and thoughtful and less like, emotionally ragged, but I'm really glad that I have a document of that time.”

Music has also helped Zauner process loss, particularly in her shift from “grief-girl music” in her earlier albums to the latest album, “Jubilee,” which offers more joy and delight. Music helped her “create a sense of belonging” in a world she felt disconnected from at times as a Korean American growing up.

In his introductory remarks at Zauner’s Evanston campus discussion, University President Michael Schill commented that reading the book was a surprisingly personal experience, having recently lost his mother. As University of Oregon president, he also lived in in Eugene for seven years before arriving in Evanston.

“I shopped in the Sunrise Market, I drove on the same streets you describe as you went back and forth, and I lost my mother a few years ago,” Schill said. “Parts of the book really moved me and from them brought even more memories of my life to the front of mind.”

A program of the Office of the Provost, One Book One Northwestern started in 2005 to engage the community in a common conversation centered on a carefully chosen, thought-provoking book.

This year’s book inspired more student engagement than ever, with a record number of 88 submissions in the 2023 essay contest, which encouraged first-years and transfers to reflect on a significant routine that held an emotional meaning for them. This year’s winners — School of Communication student Lux Vargas with the essay “Cafecito Cubano,” Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications student Sophia Zhang with “This is Blood” and McCormick School of Engineering student Azan Malik, who wrote “Reclaiming My Roots” — received a $500 prize and were recognized at the Evanston event.

“One Book is about building community and connections on the issues of the day, using a book as a springboard to highlight these issues through programming events, conversations, field trips, films, artwork and theater connected to the book’s themes,” said Nancy Cunniff, One Book director. “This book has resonated with the Northwestern community even more than we had anticipated. We look forward to providing more connection throughout the academic year.”

Zauner and Yuh riffed about Korean foods their mothers liked to make (“Vegan?” “NOT vegan!”) and the way Zauner’s immigrant mother tended to shape love as anger, like when she once fell out of a tree and got hurt as a child and her mother yelled at her instead of coming to help, a story Zauner reflected on in the talk and her memoir.

For Zauner, it took going away to college to realize, “My mom did a lot of things!” From there, she said her tumultuous relationship with her mother shifted to being peers and confidants. Losing her mother when Zauner was 25 felt unfair because “things were just starting to get good.”

“I think this book is really a love letter to my mom,” Zauner said.