Our Interviews Editor Esteban Rodríguez speaks with Jihyun Yun on the importance of family and place, the effects of diaspora and war, and the making of her debut collection Some Are Always Hungry (University of Nebraska Press, 2020), winner of The Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry.
Esteban Rodríguez: Can you tell us how Some Are Always Hungry came to be.
Jihyun Yun: Some Are Always Hungry only came together in the general form it is in now towards the end of my MFA at NYU in 2016, but I actually think I was working towards this collection since I first started writing poetry in 2013. I’ve always been interested in the secret language of food, particularly in diasporic families, the way we often use it to communicate feelings we dare not with language. I wanted to wrangle that interior language down onto the page and see what truths it would unhusk about my transmitted histories, my family and, by extension, myself.
ER: As you mentioned, food figures prominently in many poems, and there are some that either read like recipes or mirror the instructions found in them (“Bone Soup, 1951,” “War Soup,” “Fish Head Soup”). Can you elaborate further on how the secret language of food helped guide the writing of your collection.
JY: Learning to translate the language of food is what really helped me access and map out the poems about my family in an accurate and empathetic way. Though my family in recent years have gotten better about verbal communication, when I was younger, we left much unsaid. Instead, we all grew pretty adept at speaking and emoting through food: beautifully cut fruit as apology, grilled short rib in lieu of verbal praise. I think from a stranger’s perspective, my home may have appeared cold and loveless, but there was a great amount of affection, and at the center of it, always the dinner table acting as interpreter. I didn’t want that to be lost in the poems. I noticed pretty early on that a lot of my family poems felt very vacated of warmth, but introducing food, both the consumption and making of it, helped the book become a love letter.
ER: There are also poems where an emotional comfort is not figured as prominently. Instead there is a direct need to convey the realities of war, diaspora, girlhood, and the navigation of a culture that is quick to bruise a body it deems different. How did you approach writing about such topics, and what did it mean to you to have them on the page?
JY: When I was writing about these topics, my primary concern, more than craft and more than beauty, was to be empathetic. I feel that poetry of witness when handled without care runs the danger of tripping the line into spectacle. I am also aware that oftentimes the white gaze expects spectacles of suffering from diasporic poetry. I wanted to be honest about traumas, both personal and historical, but I didn’t want to manipulate them to bend the poems in any way they wouldn’t organically bend. I tried to navigate this, particularly in the poems about war and immigration, by interviewing the people those poems are about, and being careful to embellish their testimonies only in language but not content. I also tried to reject my urge to write healing into the trajectory of the book. I felt that an endpoint as neatly contained as healing wouldn’t fully honor the collection’s themes.
To me personally, there was no real sense of catharsis that came with writing down these traumas, but it did help me face certain aspects of my life more objectively. For example, I only came to terms with the fact that I am a survivor of sexual assault after I managed to write the poem “Caught.” Before the poem, I was clinging to the dubiousness of the circumstances, but being able to read back on the poem from the position of a guest turned that light on for me. Though a lot of these poems were painful to write for a myriad of reasons, I’m grateful for what they let me see.
ER: Reflection is key to the speaker understanding her surroundings and circumstances in many of your poems. In “I Revisit Myself in 1996,” where “English has just begun / to bruise [her] tongue,” the speaker looks back at the way in which she contemplates death, something she is aware of but is not fully familiar with:
I don’t know what it is
to die so I hope ghosts
are real. Who would rather be gone
than ghost? Whoever says so
are liars. They are liars.
But enough. I am a child. I live
closer to birth than death.
Can you speak more not only about this poem, but about the importance of memory in your poetry.
JY: My book lives so fully in memory because many of the poems have speakers who are seeking redress for events, both historical and personal, that was never given. I think when writing about unresolved harms, the poem will always have its face turned partially towards the past. The poem provides a safe architecture where memories can ask questions and perhaps find their own forms of resolution within the framework. I think of memory as ghosts, the body’s way of haunting itself. Memory in poems, function for me in a very similar way, a means to haunt my own body of work.
Of course, it’s not always so grim. “I Revisit Myself in 1996” was such a fun poem to write! It is probably one of the more tender and nostalgic poems in the collection.
ER: What does it mean to you to have Some Are Always Hungry out in the world?
JY: I don’t think I’ve fully absorbed all of my feelings about having a book out in the world quite yet. Especially because of the pandemic and not touring, a lot of the experience feels a little imaginary. But every once in a while, I’ll receive an email from a reader letting me know my book made them feel seen or less lonely or inspired them to write, and I’ll feel such surreal joy. In a lot of ways, the book has already achieved everything I wanted it to. Sometimes I’ll be randomly struck with the feeling that I’m forging deep bonds with people I have never met in cities I may never see. Almost like a part of me is traveling even though I’ve been nowhere except the grocery store for the past eight months. Releasing a book into the world right now feels especially lonely, but there is strange magic in it too.
ER: Your collection no doubt centers on hope, and I can’t help but think of the last lines of the poem “Benediction as Disdained Cuisine”:
Give me all
I avoided so long for your sake.
Give me my heritage back.
Let me suck meat off the shell
of every animal you won’t eat.
Give me refuse, and I’ll make it
What do you think poetry makes worthy in times like these?
JY: This year where collectively our mental health is so under siege, compounded by isolation and doom-scrolling, poetry helps remind me that the world is still worthy of remaining in love with. I realize that this is such a general statement, but it feels like no small feat in these times where most days I feel despondent and like this chapter will never turn. I am grateful for the way poems can make me travel without leaving my seat, reminding me that there is a world outside of the ten-block radius outside my house. I am grateful for every poem that maps out a moment of tenderness between strangers, which I think is what I miss the most. And I am grateful for poems like Ross Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” that are radiant with large and small joys without turning its gaze away from the work that remains to be done.
ER: What projects are you working on or do you have planned for the future?
JY: I don’t know if I can formally call this my project since I’m not really planning on querying it when I’m done, but I worked on a YA Korean ghost story retelling during November for NaNoWriMo. It’s a retelling of an old ghost story that I also wrote about in Some Are Always Hungry (The Tale of Janghwa and Hongryeon). I’m about 40,000 words deep into it. It’s been a fun project to throw myself into since it’s such a different process than poetry, and it’s been a way for me to relearn a writing practice. This year, like a lot of people, I’ve been neglecting the page. Before starting this current story, I hadn’t written in more than a year. I know that it was a necessary hiatus to tend to myself and others during this time, but I found that building a work schedule around this project has really been helpful in re-instilling some discipline in myself.
ER: What advice would you give to your younger self, on writing, life, etc.?
JY: If I could give my younger self some writing advice, it would be to try to make writing a daily ritual, even if that means just journaling or jotting down a few lines at the end of the day. I relied a lot on inspiration when I first started to write, and I think that is working against me now. As for life advice for my younger self, I would tell her to take every opportunity to visit mother. I unnecessarily chose work over flying home to see her so many times throughout college, and I regret that now. I would tell her that there is no shame in crying in front of others and often. To drink more water and less wine. I’d tell her to learn all of grandmother’s recipes so she doesn’t have to be lonely for her.