Grammy Nominee Michelle Zauner on Identity and “Crying in H Mart”

By Neiman Mocombe '26

On a chilly night in Brunswick, the Bowdoin community welcomed to Kresge Auditorium Grammy-nominated Michelle Zauner, leader of the alternative pop band Japanese Breakfast and this semester’s Santagata lecturer. 

Belinda Kong, Michelle Zauner, Kyubin Kim '22
Belinda Kong, Michelle Zauner, Kyubin Kim '22

Zauner spoke about her sudden rise to fame after publishing her book, Crying in H Mart, and her struggles with identity in the public eye.

Zauner’s memoir shares the journey through her grief after the death of her mother from an aggressive form of cancer and says writing it allowed her to reflect on their relationship.

She told the audience she realized they had both made mistakes, which she still grapples to understand and move on from. In fact, when asked what inspired the book, Zauner replied that she needed “to forgive myself.” 

A key aspect of Zauner’s writing is her relatability. “I think what I try to do in my work is write about ordinary things that move me,” she said. Throughout her talk, Zauner made similar remarks about memorializing the mundane to appreciate and reflect on her life.

Since its publication, Crying in H Mart has propelled Zauner from the New York Times bestseller list to former president Barack Obama’s summer reading list.

Asked how her increased popularity and success have affected her, Zauner responded that her life is much more stressful, since she feels she is under more scrutiny, but she said she remains committed to telling her stories and experiences in the most authentic way.

Exploring her identity is an overarching theme in Zauner’s art. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, she says she did not feel supported as a mixed-race Korean American and that her mother largely ignored the anxiety she felt around this.

“I had no friends that had immigrant parents and no representation in the media,” she said. Zauner says the feeling of isolation persisted through her adolescence but she later discovered that writing, both in literature and in song, was a positive outlet for her personal expression, and she took just about every creative writing class she could find at Bryn Mawr.

Zauner was one of the inaugural speakers for Bowdoin’s Asian American Reckonings initiative. Spearheaded by five faculty members the initiative strives to highlight the achievements and resilience of Asian Americans, shedding light on the successes and challenges they face.

Zauner’s talk was made possible by the Kenneth V. Santagata Memorial Fund, which provides one lecture each semester, rotating in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, with lecturers to be recognized authorities in their respective fields, to present new, novel, or nonconventional approaches to the designated topic in the specified category.