Michelle Zauner's Joy Is Rooted In Vengeance
Michelle Zauner: I felt like, you know, why haven't I read anything about this? Or like, why haven't I heard about like what this is? Like no one's told me. I didn't know what, like rigor mortis was, you know, like, and that was horrifying! Like, and so I felt like I needed to write about these things, in some ways, to like warn people.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
...and need to talk about more.
I'm Anna Sale.
Michelle Zauner is a rock star and a bestselling writer. You hear that when she talks. She’s both dispassionately cool, and cutting with her words.
Like, the day before we spoke, she tweeted something that caught my eye. She wrote, “The most Korean thing about me is that all my joy is rooted in vengeance.”
MZ: I was thinking about the small things that bring me great joy and how they're really rooted in this, kind of like, full circle of vengeance. And that's a really Korean thing. There's a whole emotion that a lot of people have talked about called han in Korean culture that's basically like... like Koreans have so much trauma from being invaded, and a series of wars, and being occupied, um, that there's always this feeling that you're being slighted. And a lot of like people of my parents' generation don't believe that younger generations have han, like that that's something that's been phased out, but a lot of people in my generation still believe that that's like a real Korean quality, in a way.
ANNA SALE: Like, what made those words come to you and think, "I'm going to type these out into my phone," and send them out into the world?
MZ: Well, the thing that that was specifically about was... we recently played Jimmy Fallon, and I wrote the song a few years ago called Jimmy Fallon Big!, and, um, it was about my bass player of my old band, uh, Little Big League. He like sat me down at my kitchen table and was like, "I really love Little Big League, but this other band has invited me to play as their touring bass player, and you know, I have to pursue my dream. They're going to be, like, Jimmy Fallon big. I've got to go do that." You know, I didn't blame him. He was like a brother to me. I was more really full of shame that our band hadn't reached that point. And, they actually never got to play Jimmy Fallon, they played Seth Meyers. And he— [laughter] And then, a year later, he got fired! And then, I actually, my band started taking off without him, my new band. I invited him to play with us. And then three years later, we became Jimmy Fallon big on our own.
AS: That's amazing. So wait, the Jimmy Fallon big bass player got to play Jimmy Fallon with you?
MZ: Yes, that's correct. For the first time, yeah. At some point, success isn't even—I'm not even like after success, like, I'm just after revenge. [laughter]
Michelle’s band that hit it “Jimmy Fallon big” is called Japanese Breakfast… they played The Tonight Show back in March to promote their new album, called Jubilee...which includes this song, “Be Sweet.”
[Music — "Be Sweet"]
Her new album is filled with joyful, upbeat pop songs like this one, but Michelle also published a memoir this year, called Crying in H Mart, about her mother’s death and grieving, including in H Mart, a Korean supermarket chain.
And she writes about this strange mix of sadness and success in her book. “If there was a god, it seemed my mother must have had her foot on his neck, demanding good things come my way. That if we had to be ripped apart right at our turning point, just when things were really starting to get good, the least god could do was make a few of her daughter’s pipe dreams come true.”
Michelle’s mom died in 2014, when Michelle was 25. It was a year in her life that Michelle had attached a lot of meaning to… after growing up knowing that her mom had met and married her dad when she was 25.
MZ: She left her whole family at 25 to be with this American man, um, and her life really started on this new chapter. So throughout my life, like 25 had always been this age where she really believed that things were—um, I think that she really believed that you were a real adult at 25.
AS: Yeah. Before, before you knew she was sick, as you were 23, 24, approaching 25, uh, did you feel like your life was coming together? Did you feel like you knew what your adulthood was going to look like?
MZ: Not at all. I was definitely, like... floundering in my early 20s. And, you know, part of that was I was really pursuing my path as an artist and as a musician. And I really, really believed that, um, if I just kept at it, it was going to happen for me. Um, so I was really, uh... not in a secure place in my life at that time. [chuckles]
AS: How were you paying for life at that point?
MZ: I was working at restaurants and living in Philadelphia with really cheap rent. My rent was $300. I lived with three boys. I just would work at a restaurant, and then I would go on tour for three to five weeks and get fired, and then come back and like frantically search for another job, and then worked there for a little bit, go on tour again, get fired. You know, on the music industry, you're always being told to pay your dues. That's a big part of it, but I think when I started reaching my mid-20s, I started feeling like, "You know, like I don't know if this is really going to happen for me." [chuckles]
It was around this period of uncertainty that Michelle met the person who would eventually become her husband, Peter. He's a guitarist, too. They met through the bass player in Michelle's band.
MZ: He was having a birthday party at this karaoke bar. We all went after band practice, and he was singing this six-and-a-half-minute Billy Joel song, Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. I was just really impressed right away because I was like, "This has 48 bar instrumental breaks," [laughs] and no one knows this song. They're all these millennials who've never heard the song before.
[Music — "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant"]
MZ: Like, everyone's really irritated at this guy who's picked this really long song to sign, and I just found that to be really charming. You know, he's, like, such a weird guy without trying to be weird. I remember very specifically he wore this V-neck, but it wasn't even a hipster V-neck. It was like, it was, it was practically like midway down to his belly button, I want to say. It was so odd. He wore these very large glasses, and he was just so cartoonish. Then he held this microphone like, like it was a wineglass. He was very, like, dainty in a funny way. And um, when he laughed, it was the cross between a Muppet and a little girl. Like he just has the strangest laugh. I was seeing someone else, actually, at the time, and I was just like, "I love him. I don't care." And yeah, I just became obsessed with him.
[Music — "Soft Sounds from Another Planet"]
Peter and Michelle started dating, and her band, Little Big League, put out their first album.
But just as some parts of Michelle's life in Philadelphia were starting to take shape, Michelle's mom, Chongmi, was diagnosed with late-stage gastrointestinal cancer. Michelle's parents still lived in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon where, growing up, Michelle and her mom had a close but volatile relationship, particularly when Michelle was a teenager.
MZ: I was extremely sensitive, and very... I think it was a combination of things. I had this parent and there was this huge cultural divide that we didn't even really think about, you know? I truly felt like all the things that... these sort of, like, characteristics of my mother were these idiosyncratic cruelties, particularly attached to her personality. And then in retrospect, a lot of it just comes from, like, our cultural difference, you know? And um, I don't think I realized that until really recently, unfortunately. And um, I feel like I could have been a lot worse, but for my mom, I was a complete nightmare.
AS: And when you and your mother had conflict when you were a teenager, was it out loud or was it sort of stewing quiet?
MZ: Oh, it was definitely out loud. [laughs] I'm sure we were both shouters, ab, absolutely, yeah. But you know, what I felt made my experience such a tragedy was I was in that really sweet spot with my mom where things were just starting to get really good. And we had just started to really forgive each other. She had started to forgive me for being a rotten adolescent and lashing out at her. And I, in my private mind, had begun to forgive her for being quite overbearing in my childhood, and, and, um, sort of in the way of what I felt was my dream path. And my mom told me, like, um, "You know, I realized I've just never met someone like you." That was, to me, a real turning point in my relationship with my mother where she finally admitted, like, "I think I just didn't get you. Like you know, I've never met someone like you. Maybe I was kind of like hard on you, but I was just trying to protect you." She was kind of like was finally able to let me do my thing and give me the space that I needed, and had maybe given up a little bit on trying to protect me from something.
AS: So, you are across the country from your family, from your parents when you find out that she's... gotten a cancer diagnosis. Um, what did you do next?
MZ: It was kind of like, you know, all of the papers on the desk and you just take your arms and completely wipe it out. It felt like one of those moments where it's just I have to, like, put away everything and just go there. I feel like... part, part of being an only child, I always, like, knew that there would be this moment where I would have to really step up into this role. Like it was, it was always my worst nightmare. You know that this responsibility is going to fall on you, and you want to really excel, and you want to prove to your parent that like... you're going to be there for them in the way that they were there for you. So I knew right away that I had to be there. And the other thing I knew was that my aunt, my mother's younger sister, had had cancer, you know, two years before and had died from it. So we knew that, like... that that could happen, and that that was very real and very close to us. I knew that I wanted to be there with her, and I wanted to be there with her as soon as possible because I didn't want... a big concern for me was I wanted to be there before she started chemotherapy. I wanted us to have time together before, like this part of her life, like, started. And my parents, particularly my mom, did not want me to come. I think that part of it was because they were worried that, that we were going to fight, and that my mom was... um, that my mom needed to focus on getting better, and that instead of being a positive addition, I was actually going to make things worse.
AS: Hmm. Was, did she directly communicate that to you, that she was afraid you would add stress and not relieve it?
MZ: Well, she painted it more like, "You have your life, and you're 25. And this is your time to focus on you and getting your own life together. Your dad and I will handle this. We don't need you here." And then my dad privately kind of admitted to me that there was also this big fear that she was worried that we would, we would argue, and that was incredibly hurtful to me.
AS: Yeah. 'Cause you're describing this sense of this duty that you've known that you have as an only child your entire life, and then—
MZ: Yes, there was that. There was also like, "I thought we were over this. Things are really great now and you and I can talk like adults. And you've never met someone like me, you know, remember?" And there was also the sense of like, "Oh my God, she's still holding on to this. We haven't moved on from this. She still thinks of me as this, you know, petulant child."
AS: Did you just decide to go anyway?
MZ: I decided to go anyway, yes.
[Music — "Planetary Ambiance"]
AS: When you arrived home in Eugene because you knew you just needed to be there, did you expect to be, like, the primary caregiver of your mother?
MZ: I don't think I knew how difficult it was going to be to live as a caretaker. And I think that... um, I didn't expect to have as large of a role as I did. I mean, I wanted that role, you know? I wanted to step up and be the best at it. But I don't think I knew what exactly that entailed to the, to the level that we went through.
AS: Before your mother was sick, would you cook for her or was that new when she was ill?
MZ: It would be a real novelty, I think, if I did. I might have made a couple of things for her, but I never prepared dinner for her. When I came home, it was always like she would cook for me.
AS: When you started cooking for her more regularly, would you know what to do? Like were you like looking up recipes on your phone? How were you doing it?
MZ: You know, I grew up eating Korean food but when you're going through chemo, you can't eat so many things. Like, she didn't want to eat anything. So not only was I not very skilled in cooking Korean food to begin with, but all the dishes that I did know how to make or were familiar with were like, very spicy, or extremely flavorful, or really hot, or really cold. And like, you know, she couldn't eat that kind of stuff, so I was at a real loss because I never... prepared or ate the types of food that Korean people make for when someone is sick. And then this woman, her old friend, came to live with us. Kay. She came to live with us for like three weeks, and she ended up actually staying for like three months. Um... and, when she came in, she came in with all these different recipes that I'd never even heard of. At first, it was like such a relief. Because I was like, "Oh my God, my mom is finally eating something and I don't have to worry about this as much." And then like slowly over time, um, I started feeling really edged out.
AS: Yeah. I mean the ways that you write about other women that help take care of your mom, and the ways you noticed yourself feeling competitive with them, I felt like was so honest and it's not something I hear people admit out loud often, you know?
MZ: [sighs] Yeah, yeah. That was a very surprising emotion to feel. I even felt that way— I don't know if it's just something that's unique to me, or if it's something that a lot of people experience, but it was definitely a major part of my experience. And I know that sounds very, um... immature and like selfish, but I think that this actually happens a lot. There is this possessiveness that happens in caretaking where you lose yourself to it. Like I remember like... it reminds me of this time in college when one of your girlfriends would get sick from drinking, and then like all these girls would swarm around them to be like, "Let me take care of you! I'm your good friend. I will take you to the bathroom," or whatever. Like, there's this weird possessive quality of, like, I don't know, trying to get in the good graces of someone or something.
Michelle wrote music about this time. Her band Japanese Breakfast’s first two albums were all about grief and sadness, including this song, "Moon on the Bath."
[Music — "Moon on the Bath"]
Coming up, I talk with Michelle about how watching her mom deteriorate led her to decide… to plan a wedding.
MZ: I had watched my mom just lose every shred of her dignity. I just watched her deteriorate to such a horrible place, and it just makes me so sad to think of how miserable she was. And I think that watching her go through that, that's what really made me feel we need something, anything to look forward to. And it felt that was a thing that we could do together.
Like Michelle Zauner, we at Death, Sex & Money are starting the summer by focusing on what brings us joy…
Yasmeen and Afi are spending more time outside. For Yasmeen, that means gardening. She said, “Our returning raspberry bushes have taken over a corner of the yard, and we should be eating them in a few weeks.” As for Afi, she’ll be reading in her backyard, and biking to the beach.
I just bought a hot yellow fanny pack to store a water bottle while I go on runs outside. And Katie is making lots of homemade popsicles… including some cookies and cream flavored ones.
Andrew’s enjoying getting photos and videos of his pandemic-born nephew, who’s enjoying his very first summer! “He’s the first baby in the family since the 80’s,” he said.
And meet the newest members of our team—our summer interns, Mardy Harding and Kristie Song. Here’s Mardy’s joy:
Mardy: Something bringing me joy this summer is spontaneous, some times really spontaneous, uh, video calls with my best friends, who are all around the country.
And Kristie said her summer joy is the pile of books she’s excited to get through:
Kristie: The top three are probably the poetry chapbook Dear Bear, by Ae Hee Lee, and also The Year of Blue Water by Yin Yee, and I have a graphic comic collection by Peow Studio.
That’s a BTS—behind the scenes—look about what’s bringing us joy… you know what else is bringing me joy? The music of BTS.
[Music — "Dynamite"]
That’s their song Dynamite. Let us know what’s bringing you summer joy by emailing us at email@example.com
Now, we want to hear from you: how are you finding joy in this pandemic summer? Send us your popsicle recipes, gardening tips, and whatever else you’re excited about in an email or a voice memo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the next episode…
LISTENER: Out of the blue, my mom looks at me and says, “have you ever had a pregnancy scare?” And just—I felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room.
You tell us your stories about the hardest conversations you’ve ever had.
LISTENER: In that moment I just decided, the lying stops today.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale.
Michelle Zauner and her now-husband, Peter, decided to get married in the fall of 2014. They planned their wedding in just three weeks.
MZ: My parents lived outside of the city in this big house with five acres of land. We had a big white tent on the lawn. We had these peach-colored tablecloths, and um, it was beautiful. I mean, I still feel like my wedding was the best wedding ever. I don't feel like I'm just saying that, like a lot of our friends have said this as well. It was such a perfect and beautiful ceremony, uh, and it was very homespun but also tasteful. [chuckles]
AS: Uh-huh. Of course. [laughs]
MZ: Of course.
AS: When you think about the discussions you've had with your now-husband about when and how to get married, and, you know, that so much of it was around your mother's illness, and um, um, terminal illness, did it crowd out, somehow, this idea that this was a ceremony for the two of you?
MZ: Oh, I just... I didn't care. [laughs] I honestly, like, threatened the shit out of him. I was like, "If this is something that you see yourself doing in the next five years and you don't do it now, like I will never forgive you." Like I just never... you know, marriage wasn't as serious of a thing when I thought of it. I was like, "If it doesn't work out, we just get divorced. It's not a big deal. Then we'll be these cool young divorcees and I can call you my first husband, and that sounds really sexy and mysterious." And he was actually a lot more serious about it than I was, I think. You know, I was like, in the face of life and death, I was like, "Who cares? This is a joke. You don't even have to sign the paper. Like, let's just throw this party. It'll give my mom like a sense of purpose and some small joy to experience like in the face of all of this horrible shit that she's dealing with."
AS: Um, when you think of your wedding, is there a detail about it that stands out as one that your mother helped select?
MZ: Um, you know, I don't know if it was because she was on a lot of drugs at the time, she wasn't all the way there. Um... I remember the dress that she wore, the traditional Korean dress that she wore to my wedding, largely because like her stomach was distended so like, um... the dress falls over your—like it, uh, it balloons out past your bosom, so it was very concealing in that way. Um, I remember like seeing her wearing her wig and that dress for the first time and just, like, you know, she didn't look sick at all. But um, I was really lucky that she was at my wedding, and it was beautiful. And she went into a coma a week later. She really held on to her strength to be there.
[Music — "Jimmy Fallon Big!"]
AS: When you think about her last days, what do you remember about just like the details of—like, what were the sounds in the house? What, what would you do while you were aware that she was fading?
MZ: Oh, God. I remember, like, the sound of her breath slowing. I remember like, trying to, like, detect a smell, because that was something that Kay said would happen was that there would be the smell of death. Um, and so I kept trying to like, smell, like what if, if, if it was near or something. Um, you know, t was such a painful time because the person empties out in the bed. She would pee the bed and we would have to change the sheets twice a day. It was just a terrible, horrible week of my life just waiting for it to be over, you know? And in some ways, like not wanting it to be over. Just like this torturous she's there but she's not really there. I wanted a fairy tale of her shooting out into consciousness and saying like, you know, something assuring, but, you know it never happened.
AS: Mhmm, mhmm. It's really clear to me from the way you wrote about it how closely you were paying attention, um, which I think is very loving. Like, you didn't shut down. Just the details that you recall and write about, like you were taking it all in.
MZ: I think I was just, like, horrified, you know? I think that I had this real sense of urgency of people need to know that this is what happens, because I did not have any idea of like what I was getting into or what death looked like and what illness looked like.
AS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you describe, because your mother died at home, you could decide when to tell someone else, when to invite, um, someone to come and take her body. Like what was that time like when you were with her after she was gone? Your husband was there, your father was there. Like what was it like to be next to her then?
MZ: Oh, it was so surreal. I mean, I remember like just, I had, I think, I remember being like, worried about my husband. Like, man, this must be pretty intense for you to be next to a dead body. Um, I remember being worried about my husband, just like, "Man, this must be pretty intense for you to be next to a dead body." It didn't really register what was happening. I was more concerned about other people and I was just like, "What the fuck do we do at this time now?" I didn't want her to be taken away, but I also was just like, "I need to move on." It's just confusing. I just needed to move on with my life in some ways, because we had been waiting for this moment for a week. In some ways, it was like, "We've laid here for a week. What are we going to find now?" Um, so I remember feeling that way. There's this really beautiful line in this, um... this band called Mount Eerie. He's like an indie musician, and his wife died of cancer shortly after they had a daughter, and he wrote this heartbreaking album called A Crow Looked at Me. And like, one of the lines that he writes about, um, his wife's passing is, "I don't want to learn anything from this," and that like... is just such a heartbreaking, like incredible line to me. Like that is... that's how it feels, you know. I don't want to learn anything from this.
[Music — "Real Death"]
AS: Tell me what that means to you.
MZ: I think that, especially as an artist, that's something that you do a lot and you investigate these different moments in your life, or something hard has happened and what you took away from it, what was productive about it. And I think that in like the face of real tragedy, like, there's this real, like, like fatalistic moment where you're just like, I don't want to learn anything from this. There's nothing to be learned from this, except for just like this deep true sadness. And that's just what this is."
[Music — "Psychopomp"]
AS: We've, we started our conversation by talking about vengeful joy, joy with roots in vengeance. When you were thinking about songs about joy, what's something in your life when you think of, "Oh, this is beautifully, simply joyful." Like, what, what comes to mind?
MZ: Sometimes I'll just look around at the life that we've built together, like our home and like our books on the wall, and feel just so much joy. And that's a really new, amazing feeling. And I've had a lot of joy when I'm writing music or playing music. I have so much joy when I figure something out creatively. I think that is, like, usually when I'm the most joyful.
AS: Oh, like is it a lyric that comes to mind when you think of that moment, or is like it, uh, a particular way to resolve a musical passage, like or both?
MZ: Yes, all of that. Just when you, like when something clicks or even with writing the book, when you hit a home run on a feeling and how to describe that feeling, or a passage just reads like really well, or like, you know, I add a bridge to a song, or like I add a cool keyboard line, or a great turn of phrase. Those moments are my, um, some of my most joyful moments. This is really cocky, but like, you know, like when you gain the perspective of like, I did something really great creatively in your mind, and you feel really satisfied with yourself, like I really listened to this new record, uh, recently, um, all the way through. And I had that just feeling where I was just like, "You did that, kid."
AS: Is there something, an object in your house right now, that you look at and you just feel happy?
MZ: Oh, I've lots of objects in my household that make me pretty happy. My like dishware makes me really happy. A lot of it was my mom's blue bowls from our house, and I'm really happy that we have those. And uh... right now, I'm looking at these gold ducks that my godparents got for my husband and I that are traditional marriage ducks that are supposed to fit—
AS: [chuckles] The way you say ducks, it's really funny.
MZ: They're like, uh... it's just silly. If they're facing each other, your partner and you are doing well. If you have a fight, you face them away. So like, it my husband is not being sweet, I'll turn the duck.
AS: Yeah, it gets you out of the fight. That's really smart.
MZ: Yes. "I'm going to turn the duck around." [chuckles]
AS: Everyone should have marriage ducks. [laughs]
[Music — "Savage Good Boy"]
That is Michelle Zauner. The new album from her band Japanese Breakfast is called Jubilee, and includes this song, called Savage Good Boy. Her memoir Crying in H Mart is out now… and she just announced, will be made into a movie. Michelle also made a Spotify playlist with songs that show up in her book, including that Billy Joel gem, there’s a link to that playlist in our show notes.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Afi Yellow-Duke. The rest of our team includes Katie Bishop, Emily Botein, Yasmeen Khan, and Andrew Dunn. Our interns are Mardy Harding and Kristie Song.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music, and most of the music in this episode is by Japanese Breakfast.
I'm on Instagram @annasalepics, that’s P-I-C-S, and the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Thank you to Blaire Mallkin in Charleston, West Virginia, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. And shout out to West Virginians, everywhere, wherever you are. You can join Blaire and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
[Music — "Savage Good Boy"]
I'm Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
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