June 2021: Japanese Breakfast and the commodification of grief

Grief is clearly Zauner’s brand, but I think it is a dangerous one—because it inevitably markets an ideal way to grieve

Content warning: death

‘Maybe I can film it all on my camera. I can make a documentary or something. Of our time there,’ I said. It was my instinct to document. To co-opt something so vulnerable and personal and traffic for a creative artifact. I realized it as soon as I said it out loud and became disgusted with myself. — Michelle Zauner, Crying in H Mart

A couple weeks ago I read Crying in H Mart. After finishing the book I put on Psychopomp and played it from the top. As Michelle Zauner’s dreamy vocals ran through the first few verses of “In Heaven,” I saw her mother’s jars of skincare cluttering the dresser in her now empty bedroom, her friends dividing up the handbags and clothes she left behind. My listening experience had fundamentally changed—while I always knew Zauner’s music vaguely revolved around the death of her mother, I now knew the exact pictures that populated her mother’s sketchbooks, the details of their blowout fights in Zauner’s teenage years, how she quietly passed in her last days. The effect was vividly voyeuristic. 

I’m fascinated by how Zauner has made different iterations of art over the last few years out of the same grief. And now with the release of Crying in H Mart, she’s cast off the artistic anonymity protecting her albums and invited us into all the raw intimacies of her pain. I scrolled through her Instagram and stumbled upon this post promoting her piece in the spring issue of Harper’s Bazaar about wrestling with anger and forgiveness around her father’s new young Indonesian fiancee.

From Michelle Zauner’s Instagram

“It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever written which was ultimately what convinced me it was a story I needed to share,” Zauner wrote in the caption. 

I’m interested in this notion of feeling like we must make public what we find terrifying to disclose. Grief is clearly Zauner’s brand, but I think it is a dangerous one—and not by any fault of her own—because it inevitably markets an ideal way to grieve. I see similar examples of radical vulnerability and public grieving perpetuated on a smaller scale online, like an old acquaintance from high school making a lengthy Instagram post about their struggles, or devastatingly long, detailed accounts of family trauma from internet strangers in Subtle Asian Traits. The spectacle of their accumulated griefs sold for me to consume as part of their own personal brands. Whenever I read these posts I can never shake off that same sense of voyeurism—like I am rubbernecking at the scene of a traffic accident, undoubtedly filled with some disjointed empathy for the casualties, but still lingering to observe the extent of damage. Sharing our deeply personal pain can be cathartic, but I wonder how healing it is to do so before a massive, unfiltered audience. I also don’t believe being able to relate to trauma is equivalent to healing from it. 

An excerpt from a post in Subtle Asian Traits

Of course, I didn’t always hold these views. The allure of grief as a personal brand is that it offers public validation that my grief is exceptional, and by proxy, that my love is, too. If I don’t share my grief or make art from it, if it were not appraised by an audience, then does it even exist? 

When I was in elementary school, I read an American Girl op-ed written by a girl my age about a nonprofit she’d started in honor of her brother. He had a seizure one day and went to the ER. While he ultimately survived, this experience so deeply moved the girl that she started making bracelets or something similarly childlike to fundraise money for other children with epilepsy. I showed the article to my mom, and she asked me if I’d thought of doing anything similar. It was an innocuous question, and I remember being 8 years old and asking myself why I didn’t nationally distribute handmade bracelets and get published in American Girl.

But grief, as I’ve come to learn, is rarely a singular event that you neatly convert into productivity. Sometimes grief is unfinished for your entire lifetime, and you spend all your days digging your loved ones out of an already made grave. Sometimes it is all you can do but to not sink into the earth along with them. 

What is the correct way to grieve then, to both honor those who have finished their journey and those who are still with us? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t encourage children to make bracelets or adults to write albums and memoirs. I’m also not an advocate for suffering in solitude. But I resent how capitalism forces us to make spectacles of our experiences, even if we do not directly profit off of them. How we move forward with the cards we have been dealt looks different for everyone, regardless of what is packaged and sold to us. I wish I could have told my younger self that sometimes the most we can do is get by. That there was no need to prove my love by publicly memorializing my pain for others to gawk at. 

If creating art and sharing it helps you find closure and move through, I hope you find time to do that. But I hope that we can know that our grief and subsequent healing need not be public to be valid. Sometimes all we can manage is to suffer quietly. And that is enough.

If any of this resonated with you, I’d love to hear about it! Feel free to send me a DM @hairol.ma on Instagram or @hairolma on Twitter. And it would mean so much to me if you shared this with someone you know! I know it’s a cardinal sin to have two CTAs, but you can give this a subscribe or leave a comment below.

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I know I said this would be monthly thing

So I am truly very sorry that it took me another six months to churn out another issue. I just didn’t really have anything that compelled me to write over the last six months. This one sort of got word barfed out over the course of a few hours and then hurriedly refined in a weekend, so a very special thanks to Victoria Huynh for helping me edit and brainstorm this piece! (If you have not read her absolutely incredible essay on SHINee in Teen Vogue yet, what are you doing? Promise it’s worth a read even if you’re not a SHINee fan like me.) As always, thank you so very much for reading.