Reading and Grieving in the AANHPI Community

June 1, 2022

This National Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage (AANHPI) Month, Compassion & Choices highlights three AANHPI authors for their work about death, family and identity.

May is National Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage (AANHPI) Month, and Compassion & Choices is acknowledging traditions surrounding death and grief in AANHPI communities. To that end, we’re highlighting three AANHPI authors who have been recognized for their work that engages with the topic of grief and bereavement, and the way that these experiences intersect with their identities.

In her 2021 book Crying in H Mart: A Memoir, author and musician Michelle Zauner describes her experience growing up as one of the only Asian-Americans in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon, her Korean-American mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis and subsequent death, and the ways that her Korean heritage manifested in her grieving process. The book, whose title references the Korean-American supermarket chain H Mart (the “H” stands for han ah reum, a Korean phrase that roughly translates to “one arm full of groceries”), cites food as a central component of Zauner’s connection to her family and Korean-American identity.

In a CBS interview earlier this year, Zauner recounts that “for a long time, I couldn’t remember my mom before she was sick.” But when she was shopping in H Mart looking at Korean ingredients she used to eat with her mom, she said that “suddenly I wasn’t thinking about my mom losing her hair or my mom losing weight, I was thinking about us in Korea eating Patbingsu, shaved ice with sweet red beans. It was like a parting of a mental cloud.” Crying in H Mart: A Memoir debuted at number two on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and Zauner is currently writing the screenplay to adapt her memoir into a movie.

Kat Chow shares a similar story of filial love and loss in her 2021 book Seeing Ghosts: A Memoir. The book describes the story of her parents’ immigration from China and her grief over unexpectedly losing her mother at age 13. Her memoir imbues her family history with a touch of magical realism to examine how the loss of a loved one can indelibly shape the lives of the living. Chow was one of the cofounders of NPR’s Code Switch, and her reporting background and deep interest in race, identity and cultural history drives her memoir’s larger project. Throughout her book, Chow describes the melancholic nature of both retaining old identities and forming new ones as the child of immigrants and in the wake of family loss. In an interview with Harvard Book Store, Chow explains that she “wanted to use this book as a way to show grief as a worldview [and] loss as a world view.” Chow also discusses the inspiration she drew from other Asian-American authors like Gish Gen and John Okada who wrote about their own experiences and perspectives on the Asian American diaspora.

Branching into fiction, author and artist R. Kikuo Johnson develops a story of grief and loss in a native Hawaiian family in his 2021 fictional graphic novel No One Else. The story is set on Maui during the dying days of the commercial sugar industry, and the plot follows a local family reeling from the loss of their family patriarch. The novel is painted in somber and muted tones, which lends a visual element to the themes of grief, loss and melancholy that are played out by Johnson’s characters. Earlier this year, Johnson joined Comix Experience for a discussion about his most recent novel. When asked about his decision to portray a native Hawaiian family, Johnson, a native Hawaiian himself, said “I really just wanted to showcase the daily life of local people just living their life [on Maui].” Johnson earned acclaim for his previous graphic novel Night Fisher, and he continues to write and draw for the New Yorker, where he develops visual portrayals of contemporary issues in the AANHPI community.

The AANHPI community is composed of diverse and complex networks of cultures and beliefs, and these books offer just a few unique perspectives on how these AANHPI authors have dealt with grief. Reading about their experiences provides new understanding and appreciation for the different ways people approach the topic of death and dying. Compassion & Choices is dedicated to continuing to learn more about end-of-life experiences in AANHPI communities so that we can make space for everyone to create their own end-of-life journeys.

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