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2 Book recs, memoir and craft
Improve writing immediately
“Buy me five, ten, okay? That’s 50, make it a 100,” my mother says, leaving a Ben Franklin on the counter with two packs of TJ’s peanut butter cups.* I order the instant coffee: three boxes of Mochaccino, two Vanilla Latte, and one Hazelnut, or 60 sticks in total. I’m in the range. That’s the last of Vanilla and Hazelnut; she’s ordered them out. The top reviewer wrote, “I love these – the best instant coffee I’ve ever had.” Another review, “works out to about $1.30 a cup versus $4.50 for Starbucks.”
My Vietnamese side of the family are foodies, pure and simple. Starting with my mother, aunties, cousins, and everyone on the maternal side for that matter, planning visits and life around meals. Yesterday my mom dropped off a platter of Gỏi Cuốn, fresh rolls of noodles, shrimp, and pork slices in dampened rice paper, with peanut sauce. The sauce was warm, with added ingredients to give it a bit of sweetness and crunch. The rolls had a wet paper towel on top to keep them moist. The greens inside have thin pointy Rau Răm leaves which give the roll a crisp and light flavor.
Last weekend, I read Michelle Zauner’s mega-hit-memoir which opens with this sentence. “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.” Zauner and I have something in common: Asian moms who cook, whose labor of love is cooking, or more broadly, moms who love food. I love food. I love H Mart but not as much as my mother does. H Mart, if you haven’t been, is a Korean supermarket with Kim-chi for days, produce for weeks, a multi-ethnic food court, a Korean pharmacy–better, beauty center– and my favorite, the bakery.
Zauner’s visits to H Mart after her mother dies keeps her connected to her past because the extent of her Korean-ness is tied to food, the shopping and cooking and eating. Her American father is a provider and on the periphery. The writing is raw and compelling in the first chapters. What makes this work is the authenticity of this Amerasian world, which I know all too well. The life of the Hapa, or Hapa-haole*, the half-white and half Asian. It resonated for me, at times pitch perfect.
Why read memoir? Many reasons, the first is to know what it is to be someone else, outside your own corporeal existence. Unlike a biography, it is a slice of life; it is also factually accurate. Second, it is the ideal history lesson, a bit like a banana. Here’s a perfectly contained fruit, you get to taste it fully from the source as you pull back the peel, as you turn each page. There is no slant or filter from someone else. You get it directly from the author, her intentions, reflection, experience. Not all memoir is created equal, but then what two biographies are? Memoir is a chance to peer into history in the making, of notable figures. Or in this case, of every day people. It also provides perspective on your own life, with relief or resonance.
Readers who are foodies may find their mouths watering with the writing highly sensual, the tastes and smells, the flavors and textures. Deep-fried battered pork, the orange sauce, the chicken-and-ginseng porridge, the galangal needed for Indonesian curry. The fried rice, ox-bone soup, onion, gochujang chili paste. All of these from the first pages. The chapter ends:
Within five years, I lost both my aunt and my mother to cancer. So, when I go to H-Mart, I’m not just on the hunt for cuttlefish and three bunches of scallions for a buck; I’m searching for memories. I’m collecting the evidence that the Korean half of my identity didn’t die when they did. (Crying in H Mart, p. 11)
Parts of the chapter, Save Your Tears, are right out of my own life. Tough love is brutal and industrial strength. Zauner falls out of a tree and instead of comforting her, her mother descends on her like a murder of crows. “HOW MANY TIME MOMMY SAY STOP CLIMBING THAT TREE?!” And further, “Stop crying! Save your tears for when your mother dies.” (p. 17) Nice and apt simile with use of a murder of crows with the word’s other definitions.
The dialogue to this Vietnamese American ear is unerring. “This kind of military jacket is very popular style in Korea now. Mommy want to get you one but you always wear ugly thing.” ( p. 61) The mother talks of herself in third person, not uncommon with children. What is true is the scathing honesty, the unvarnished criticism. You always wear ugly thing. My mother’s tastes were–often are–superior. In fashion, in food. In all things when I was a child.
Zauner is an indie pop musician with a group named Japanese Breakfast. Surprise, named for food. The book has been optioned for film. I’m not keen on the cancer, dying, and grief part which make up much of the book. That’s been done. A lot. I appreciate the movement or cadence in her writing, the words of a musician which are easy to read and telling.
Tap into the senses in your writing, the gestures, and body language, the 87 percent of communication beyond the words.* Writers focus on visual often forgetting taste, smell, hearing, and touch: the food and flavors, the sounds, the textures.
The dogs bark at the racket when my mother lets herself in the mudroom, her voice booming in contrast to her size, barely 90 pounds, bent slightly at the waist, clad in dark wrap top, loose leggings, white socks, and black flats. My mother had left the money for the coffee yesterday, or the day before, and she reminds me because it hasn’t moved. She points to my hair, mentions the curls. A comment or criticism, I’m not sure and it no longer bothers me. She sniffs my cheek as I bend towards her.
I had planned to visit H Mart with my mother while reading this memoir. We love the Boba Tea or bubble tea made to order at the bakery. If I drink it right, I get black tapioca pearls in each sip of the golden milk tea. They roll on my tongue after I drink through the extra wide boba straw. My mother disliked them, spitting them out. She tried the candied taro boba with lychee jelly and she was hooked.
“I like this better than coffee-bucks! This is the best, Linh. I dream of it!” I wanted to take her last week but she didn’t feel good. I’m lucky my mother is still around and cooks for me; if I’m candid, this last delivery of Gỏi Cuốn was for her granddaughter who is visiting.
Food was how my mother expressed her love. (p. 4)
*TJs or Trader Joe’s is one of my mom’s favorite grocers. She knows the florists in each store on sight or they know her. And, details such as the time deliveries arrive, what flowers come in what season. She will bring me papaya and fruits, special deals she can’t pass when she buys extra. Oh and, my mother likes flowers and plants nearly as much as food.
*Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. Read it first. Before the film is out, because you know it’s better, as a book.
*Hapa is a Hawaiian word for half. In full, the term is Hapa Haole, or half-white. Urban dictionary: ha•pa (hä’pä) adj. 1. Slang. of mixed racial heritage with partial roots in Asian … n. 2. Slang. a person of such ancestry. Hawaii was one of the first places I saw a lot of people who looked like me, talking openly about their Asian heritage. I write about Pearl Buck’s tragic love story and what I learned in, Interracial love, the World child, and Pearl Buck.
*Consider This, Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different by Chuck Palahniuk. He writes about writing, with examples and things you can do to improve. The book may be worth reading just for the Postcards from the Tour chapters interspersed throughout with wild–and true–stories. And, his reading lists for fiction and nonfiction, books he read after which everything was different. Anyway, he cites an expert who says 87 percent of communication comes from nonverbal cues such as gestures, tone, body language, with only 13 percent from the words.