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How music and writing helped Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner overcome her mother’s death

Rachel Fadem, CNN | Ken Olshansky, CNN and Emmet Lyons, CNN

The past two years have been a whirlwind for Japanese Breakfast’s lead vocalist Michelle Zauner. She’s headlined music festivals, performed on Saturday Night Live, landed two Grammy nominations and her 2021 memoir, “Crying in H Mart,” is a New York Times bestseller and is now being turned into a movie.

Sitting down with CNN, Zauner said her recent success has been “surreal and certainly validating,” while pointing to how much of her work has been shaped by the grief of losing her mother.

In 2014, Zauner’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She passed away just months later. Growing up, the 33-year-old viewed her Korean mother as highly critical and judgmental, often getting in the way of her independence, creativity, and passion, though she now acknowledges it was the way she expressed love for her daughter. Her sudden death left Zauner “robbed of such a beautiful time” when the two could have connected as adults.

“Growing up mixed-race and suddenly losing what kind of tethered me to that part of myself just felt at risk suddenly in this way I had never experienced before,” she said.

Shortly after her passing, she began to find comfort shopping at H Marts, a grocery store chain specializing in Asian food. In its aisles, which feature many beloved Asian snacks, she was flooded with memories of her mother and experiences they shared before she was diagnosed.

Writing “Crying in H Mart” was Zauner’s way of making sense of her mother’s passing and reconnecting with her Korean heritage.

“It brings me great comfort when memories of my mother make me smile, but it also brings me great comfort that I still cry for her,” she said.

“It’s such an intense raw feeling to remember her and have a small memory kind of knock you off your feet.”

After publishing her memoir,” Zauner released Japanese Breakfast’s third album “Jubilee” later in 2021.

“It was time to begin a new chapter creatively,” Zauner explained.

“I wanted to write an album about giving myself permission to feel joy, finally allowing joy into my life, the joys of getting to do what I do for a living which is just a complete lottery ticket.”

Zauner likes to think that her mother would be proud of her. Now, Zauner plans to move to South Korea, to connect with the culture and learn Korean. She’s also thinking about her next project.

“I think that it’s a very natural desire to want to document the present, and I think that’s a really fascinating idea that a lot of people are interested in,” she said.

“That’s my interest in writing my next book.

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