Three New Memoirs Reveal the ‘Vertigo’ of Life in the Diaspora

A Memoir
By Michelle Zauner
239 pp. Knopf. $26.95.

If this coming together in diaspora involves the daily realities of eating and mourning, Zauner’s gutting account of coming to terms with her mother’s death, and coming into her own as a Korean American, is peerless. I never thought a book could have me rushing to the pantry for snacks one moment and ugly-crying the next, but here we are. For the musician behind Japanese Breakfast, memories flutter around every bite and crunch she eats.

Food is Zauner’s lifeline to her Korean mother, Chongmi, who died of cancer in 2014. At the time, Zauner had just emerged from a tempestuous adolescence, spent feeling “half in and half out” as a second-generation immigrant in suburban America, and was finally beginning to appreciate the delicate trans-Pacific bonds that held her and her mother together. “You know what I realized?” Chongmi says on one of her daughter’s visits home from college: “I’ve just never met someone like you.” The line is heartbreaking not only because it captures the disorientation of raising a child an ocean away from home. It also makes Zauner feel “as if I were a stranger,” as though mother and daughter “wandered lost without a reference point, each of us unintelligible to the other’s expectations, until these past few years when we had just begun to unlock the mystery, carve the psychic space to accommodate each other.”

Confronted with the incommensurability of loss, Zauner finds a new language for unsettling the “complicated desire for whiteness” that closed in on her from an early age. As for Lomnitz, so too does Zauner find that the vertigo of being suspended between cultures brings at once confusion and clarity. But Zauner’s memoir makes a powerful case for a new language: the language of archive. She painstakingly and tenderly assembles the flavors of love and grief for fermentation in a kimchi refrigerator, to weather time as a memorial to parental devotion. “She was my champion, she was my archive,” Zauner writes of Chongmi. “She had taken the utmost care to preserve the evidence of my existence and growth, capturing me in images, saving all my documents and possessions. She had all knowledge of my being memorized.” Of course, an archive only survives if you work to preserve it.

A Memoir
By Quiara Alegría Hudes
316 pp. One World. $28.

For those who’ve come of age within the Caribbean diaspora that runs along America’s I-95, Hudes’s memoir of growing up in North Philadelphia with a Puerto Rican mother and a Jewish father will ring absolutely true. A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Hudes brings this world alive in all its glory, ping-ponging between the linguistic multiplicity of urban immigrant life and the zombie enclosures of monolingual whiteness. There’s breathing “holy in the slot” to bring a Nintendo cartridge back to life. Blasting Juan Luis Guerra’s album “Bachata Rosa,” bought at Sam Goody, with its “clarion trumpets, power-synth hits, Afropop vocals — the old world, new world and middle passage braided like cornrows.” And, at the heart of it all, an immigrant mother who moves between the worlds of community activism and the inner life of the spirit.

In “Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience,” the literary critic Rey Chow poses the question: “Does having a language mean coming into possession of it like a bequest from bona fide ancestors and/or being able to control the language’s future by handing it down to the proper heirs?”

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