In her poem “Benediction of Disdained Cuisine,” Jihyun Yun declares, “Give me my heritage back. / Give me refuse, and I’ll make it / worthy. Let me suck meat off the shell / of every animal you won’t eat.”
Winner of the Prairie Schooner Prize for Poetry, Yun’s debut collection, Some Are Always Hungry, dissects the myriad ways in which food is a forceful form of power. Through recipes, rationing, and animal dismemberment, Yun presents a reclamation of identity and womanhood, as the poet uses food in all its mythical and visceral manifestations to expose and interrogate the inequalities and sacrifices, the leavings and desires that propel humans to protect one another and tear each other apart.
Yun’s poems are also portals to worlds just beyond what we thought was possible. A mouth is never just a mouth. The pig, too, might be a mother, or at the very least, a girl. Every animated thing pulsing in this collection’s pages has a stomach, a heartbeat, a tongue, a memory, an ache. Yun grants us access into lost places and sacred spaces. She challenges us to endure violences spoken, to tend to secrets silenced, to revel in kindnesses tasted. Through these open doors, time is unhinged and like water, Yun moves readers fluidly through her family’s lived history as she retells and creates a history of her own.
Jihyun Yun is a Korean American poet from the Bay Area. A Fulbright Research Fellow, she received her BA in Psychology from UC Davis and MFA from New York University. Her poems can be found or are forthcoming in Best New Poets, Narrative Magazine, Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She currently resides in Ann Arbor.
Recently, I sat down with Yun for a socially distanced conversation on the University of Michigan’s campus to discuss the mouth as metaphor, a few favorite Korean fairy tales, and the ways in which language connects food, women, and violence.
The Rumpus: The dedication for Some Are Always Hungry reads, “For my mother & her mother & hers.” Throughout the book are poems that go back in time to the 1950s and speak to the story of the speaker’s grandmother, and the wisdom and warnings that are imparted and passed from mother to mother, from daughter to daughter. As this book came together, did you write these poems in the voices of three distinct characters or as one collective ancestral voice which can move fluidly through time and space and bodies?
Jihyun Yun: When I first started writing the book, it was separated into three sections: grandmother, mother, and then the daughter. But in the end, I felt like there was an inauthenticity to that neat delineation, an insinuation that these separate voices had found resolution within their own narratives and thus could live separately on the page. In the book, these voices speak over, speak with, speak for each other, and so it made sense to me to omit section breaks altogether to clear a wider path for their somewhat chaotic tangle. I couldn’t divorce the voice of my grandmother, especially from the main speaker (the daughter), so in the end I had the grandmother’s voice haunting all of the sections. They’re all reaching toward the same point, so I married them all together, and had the grandmother be the leading thread throughout the poems.
Rumpus: You bring up the word “haunting.” The grandmother figure also seems to serve as a reminder of the ever-looming presence of history and war, the ways in which trauma is passed down through the body, through language, through stories, through food. Regarding the poems about your grandmother, were most of the details told to you firsthand? Did you have to seek the stories out or do your own historical research?
Yun: It was a mix. My grandmother started to be much more forthcoming in talking with me when I went to Korea for the first time during my Fulbright in 2017. She knew I was in the country specifically to write, so she sometimes would sit me down and say, “I want you to take notes about what I’m going to say.” But when she was here, it was much more difficult to get the stories out. I’m not sure what it was about being in this country that locked her tongue. Maybe it was feeling divorced from the language she heard all around her. Her former privacy necessitated a not-insignificant amount of fictionalization in the book around whatever slivers of memories she divulged to me. Sometimes, writing Some Are Always Hungry felt like an equal exercise in both biography and myth-making.
As for hauntings, my grandmother really did think she was haunted by the deceased woman she took the clothes from in “Passage 1951.” That actually did happen to her, and the guilt chased her all the way to the United States. She would make us throw salt around the house, pray, all that. Sometimes, what you’ve done in order to live never really leaves you.
Rumpus: The reference to food in this collection definitely made me salivate, but there are also other food references that remind us people are often treated as food, too. As prey, as meat, as “parts” to be enjoyed or ripped into or devoured. Your writing seems to spotlight the extremities of existence, and in your poems, it is often the women who are compared to food; who are food. For example, in “All Female,” violence towards women is embodied in the ways we cook: we eat the female animal because their meat is sweeter. How did this connection of women as food form, or evolve, as you were writing these poems?
Yun: That’s a really interesting question. It was completely unintentional when I was writing it. I didn’t set out intending to draw such direct comparisons between the female body and food at all, and when I first realized it had saturated the collection so completely, it frightened me and I’ve been told my book can be triggering. I think the language in the book naturally became that way because the language that we use to describe women is often so imbued with violence, even when not directly speaking toward or about violence. People speak against reproductive rights as if the uterus is a disembodied entity outside our jurisdiction. Colloquial language breaks down women into their constituent parts—like, look at that girl’s legs, look at her thighs—and I don’t know if we do that to the same extent with male bodies. It was unconscious that that connection was drawn. I do find it very troubling in itself that it’s easier to imagine the female body as food, as something hunted, as prey, but I think it’s also speaking to a truth of how language, too, can be a knife, and how it is often brandished.
Rumpus: Would you say that’s true in both American and Korean cultures and their languages, or do you see differences?
Yun: I feel as though in this regard there might be similarities. Though it is not my primary language, I know a fair amount of conversational Korean and I hear a lot of language like, “ Did she taste nice? Was she delicious?” There is also slang that translates to pick (as if from a tree) and eat, and from what I understand, the term is used in derogatory reference to sexual conquest of women but is not commonly used in reference to men. That’s also devouring language. I am not fluent in Korean anymore, though, so I can’t speak to how accurate my assessment of the usage is; this is just what I have been told from friends.
Rumpus: I’m interested in your use of mouths in this collection. The mouth is a touchstone for so many points of human connection: eating, speaking, kissing. Love and violence, pain and pleasure—all of it can be found in the mouths of your poems. In “Fields Notes from My Grandparents,” there’s this striking line: “Woman / and her mouth of blades.” Can you speak a bit about the power of the mouth, and what draws you to explore the mouth’s metaphors and mechanisms in your poetry?
Yun: I love this question; thank you. I was interested in exploring the mouth’s myriad utilities, as a vehicle of physical nourishment and expressing love via feeding or kissing, but also the role the mouth, and by extension the tongue, plays in preserving history both lived or transmitted, and to speak into possibility a movement towards elsewhere. In the collection, the mouths of the three main speakers struggle to articulate a kinder world still unfathomable to them, in efforts to forge a path there. Articulation is conjuring. I believe it’s the realest magic our bodies are capable of.
Rumpus: In your poem “Field Notes from My Grandparents,” the wife says to her husband, “Tell me who I am / and I will be.” In “Immigration,” the speaker says about her sacrifices, “Tell me it was worth it, / and I’ll believe you.” Your poems point to the need for validation, the need to hear authoritative words spoken aloud. Your poems also spotlight the harm endured daily by women living in a world that constantly dictates how and who they should be. But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. In your poem, “Husband Stitch,” the speaker undergoing a “husband stitch” operation says, “let me retell the story / as it should have been.” What would you like to retell and how do you see your poetry working towards that?
Yun: A lot of the poems in the book started as epistolary poems. I think that’s where the persistent “tell” comes from. As for what I want to retell in my poetry, I often think of how my grandmother once gave me permission to write about her life on the condition that I let her “live with a little beauty this time.” I want to honor her request by writing what was and what is, but also by rendering a world within the book that lets her live again with (as per her request) more beauty, by which I believe she means mercy. A world that is truthful about their trauma but also insulates from further trauma. What results in the retellings might not always be immediately recognizable to them, but their stories are there in the framework.
Rumpus: What prompted you to move away from the epistolary form?
Yun: I took the poems out of the epistolary because it felt too immediate. I think a lot of writers have that anxiety of their family, or the people who they’re writing about, reading and feeling damaged because of it. So, I wanted to create a little bit of a barrier between the speaker and myself, and the people who the various speakers are speaking to. It was a way to protect them, but also a way to protect my own heart.
Rumpus: Some Are Always Hungry showcases a terrific breadth of your experimentations with poetic form. Some of your poems are recipes; others are dialogues between two voices. Some poems scatter across the page like frenzied ants, while others are neatly bundled blocks of lyrical prose. How do you know which form a poem will take? Do you experiment with multiple forms of the same poem before committing to one? Do you have a particular form that you are drawn to more frequently?
Yun: I lack foresight, so when I’m writing, I don’t think about form until it comes time to edit. I write everything at first into a gigantic prose block and get the language on the page first. The language and the internal rhythms then dictate how I should move lines around the page. I figure form out slowly with a lot of experimentation and shuffling in and out until I find the right fit. I think finding the right form for a poem is the most fun part of the editing process! It feels the most like play. As for forms I’m drawn to, I’ve always gravitated towards poems that utilize lots of white space, both for how they aesthetically look on the page, but also for what this forces me to do with my breath when I read aloud. I am also very drawn to sestinas, though I’ve never successfully written one.
Rumpus: Within the collection, you dissect a number of Korean fairy tales, including “The Nymph and the Woodcutter” and “The Tale of Janghwa and Hongryeon.” Did you grow up with these stories? What influenced you to transcribe and retell them now?
Yun: I did grow up with a lot of fairy tales, Korean fairy tales specifically because when I was younger, I was raised mostly by my grandmother. What drew me most to retelling Janghwa and Hongryeon specifically is that I wanted to vacate the tale of men and see what happened. The result was interesting. The fairy tale is a story about a murder and a subsequent haunting. Without the male characters, it is still a ghost story but it is no longer a haunting.
Rumpus: We learn in your poem, “Homonyms,” that your grandmother has warned her daughter that “all girls are burned.” She is especially talking about how America has singed her, as she is a Korean immigrant and a woman. But we learn that in Korean, the word “burning” also means “to carry.” Can you expand on the connections you see between these two meanings, and especially how they relate to the lives of women today?
Yun: Thank you, this is such an interesting question I probably don’t have a full answer to it quite yet but will likely be searching for it for a long time. While writing “Homonyms,” I was primarily thinking about the ways even an act such as carrying to safety can result in unforeseen collateral harms. For example, the warnings women give girls in hopes to keep them safe from predation: don’t dress this or that way, don’t go places alone, etc. Of course this comes from a place of care, but it puts the onus of responsibility on girls and can cause unintentional harm in lots of different ways.
Fire, too, as an element carries us. It feeds us, and its illumination protects us, but if we aren’t careful it can destroy. It felt like the perfect homonym and dichotomy to drive the poem.
Rumpus: You spent the last year in Korea on a Fulbright fellowship. How did your year abroad influence the direction of your thinking and the writing of these poems?
Yun: I initially set off on my Fulbright to write poems about Haenyeo, the free-diving women of Jeju Island who dive without any breathing gear to hunt for things like abalone, sea-squirts, and octopus to sell at markets. It’s really hard physical labor, and most young people on the island don’t want to do it anymore and are going into tourism or moving to the mainland for other opportunities, so most of the remaining Haenyeo are older than seventy.
I took a turn away from that because I started to feel really uncomfortable. I didn’t know as much about the history of Jeju Island, so I didn’t realize there was this very fraught history between mainland Korea—which is where my family’s from—and the island, and that tensions persist to a certain capacity to this day. I felt like I was occupying a space that I didn’t really have a right to occupy.
Even though I moved away from that project and stopped writing poetry about these diver women, my year in the Fulbright observing them water-logged my manuscript. I don’t think my book had as much water imagery as it does now. Before, the book’s main element was fire, and even if we did see a fish or a crustacean, it was on a cutting board or being seared. A lot of the poems now take place on the beach, or a river, or a lake teeming with life. Though I didn’t complete my Fulbright in the way initially intended, I’m grateful the experience added another ecosystem to my book.
Photograph of Jihyun Yun courtesy of Jihyun Yun.