• Carmen Arribas

Jihyun Yun on Food, Identity and Language — Mapping the World with Words Interview Series

Updated: Apr 29

Jihyun Yun is a Korean-American poet and Fulbright Research Fellow. Her debut collection, Some Are Always Hungry, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and was subsequently published by Nebraska University Press.

Your debut collection, Some Are Always Hungry, was published in 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic. How has this affected you, and how have you lived the publication of your first publication in such circumstances?

My inconveniences were minor compared to many other authors, I was only in the beginning stages of planning my book tour when the lockdowns started to happen, so I had to cancel just a few events and one flight. Even so, I can’t say I wasn’t sad about it. I was most excited to meet readers in person to sign my books, and to share the mic with other debuting poets. Of course, I didn’t end up getting to do either of these in a face-to-face capacity but there were many blessing in having my events go virtual. I love the way online events are accessible to those who might otherwise have no way to attend physical readings. There is also a certain camaraderie I’ve felt amongst authors debuting during the pandemic that has been such a light during an otherwise bleak publishing season. Without other writers, I would have done no events for my book after my physical tour fell through. Nearly every reading I’ve participated in, I’ve been invited to by other currently touring authors. Many of us are trying to shine a light on one another, and that shared light illuminates a wide space.

Some Are Always Hungry revolves around the themes of culture and identity and relates them very strongly to elements such as womanhood, language and, most importantly, food. How do all these connect (or disconnect) you to your heritage?

For me, my appetite is what makes me feel most Korean. In all other ways, I live in that liminal space I think a lot of diasporic Koreans probably do. The language no longer tethers me that closely to my heritage because I’ve lost the easy command I used to have of it as a child. I didn’t spend any significant time in Korea until I was well into my twenties so any cultural moors I learned are mostly secondhand from my family who immigrated in the 80’s and thus have an arrested vision of the country they hail from. It is in the food that I crave when I’m lonely, or in dishes my mother and I labor over when we are together that keeps me most in community with my ancestors.

Is food a language?

Oh my goodness, yes! It totally is. My family and I don’t share primary languages. My Korean is colloquially fluent, but there is just so much intention that falls through the cracks of my understanding. Talking tends to lead to miscommunication. The only language we are all mutually fluent in is food and feeding, and that language is often used as balm to salvage what our spoken communication wrecked. How many times have I been given or offered a bowl of cut fruit as an apology and gesture of reconciliation? For me, it is the most tender language.

In “I Revisit Myself in 1996” you write “English has just begun/ to bruise my tongue/ but I am all Korean”. Do you ever write in Korean, or feel the urge to do so? What are the problems that may arise, personally, when you are not fluent in a language you feel as yours?

I don’t write full poems in Korean because I’m not fluent, but adding fragments of Korean in my poems feels natural because that is precisely how my command of the language is: fragmented. Growing up with my grandparents, Korean was the first language I learned and was fluent in. I spoke it nearly exclusively as a child and then rapidly forgot it once I started attending school. A lot of that forgetting was intentional. When I was younger, I was desperate to assimilate, much to my detriment. I regret letting my Korean rust, and a good chunk of my adulthood has been a scramble to regain my first tongue. The most salient problem for me with my lack of fluency is that I don’t share a primary language with my family anymore. Though we do communicate adequately enough with our hybrid mix of Korean, English and non-verbal cues, there is an undeniable loneliness in not fully being able to communicate with my most loved ones.

If I had to choose just one poem from you book (which I have to say, is a very difficult decision to make) it would be “The Daughter Transmorphic”. In it, you say “I’ve always wanted/ to populate myself”. How do you populate yourself? What, or who, else is always in there with you?

I populate myself by constantly trying to make amends with past iterations of me. All my girlhoods I’ve harmed or allowed to be harmed. I let my past selves say no as often and as fervently as they want, I let them eat and cry when they need to. I let them leave. My mother is there too, because I carry her with me everywhere I go.

How is your creative process? Are you a planner or does your poetry come at random times when you least expect it?

I am absolutely not a planner, I don’t even really have a regular writing schedule. Almost always though, poems come to me at night. I’ll often dream something, wake up and immediately write a few lines in my phone to build poems out of the next morning. My phone’s notes app is an unruly place full of months-old grocery lists and dreams.

What is your comfort food, and why?

I feel like I sing soup’s praises every chance I get, but I truly don’t think there is anything quite as comforting, both the consumption and creation of it. I like the act of tending to a pot on the stove over a low simmer, coaxing flavor from bones and scraps, the way it demands so much devotion. Cooking it feels like an act of love and attention, even if just for myself. My favorite soups for when I need a mood booster is probably sullungtang, which is a Korean plain milky white bone broth that is served bland and salted to taste at the table, or Pho which is one of my mother’s favorite foods so I have lots of fond memories of eating it together with her in Oakland and San Jose.

And a book everyone should read to understand a bit more who Jihyun Yun is?

Rose and City In Which I Love You by Li Young Lee were the most formative books for me when I first started writing and reading poetry in college, and they’re always the first two collections I recommend to others.

I need to ask: Why poetry? Do you think you will ever dive into a different literary genre?

It’s the freedom poetry afforded me that made me fall in love with it initially. As someone who was always marked down in English classes due to my inability to grasp grammar rules (still can’t, I don’t know why!), I felt liberated and exhilarated by the way poetry allowed me to live at the rupture of grammar and form. That said, I definitely am interested in learning more about writing fiction. I read everything from middle grade to sci fi, and I’d love to try my hand at a novel one day. I’m currently in the beginning stages of drafting a young adult story. Not necessarily with grand plans of querying it or anything, it’s just a fun project to learn more about the craft and keep my pen busy during my much-needed post-publication poetry hiatus.

Lastly, do you have any advice for young poets that you wished you had known when you started writing?

I would definitely encourage young poets to develop a writing routine. I relied on inspiration too much in my first few years of writing, and I’m paying for it now. By this I don’t mean write every day. I think rest and seasons of just reading, thinking and taking in the world are pivotal for writers, but I do believe it is important that writers can commit themselves to some sort of weekly writing routine when that season of rest ends. I’m trying to develop a habit now, but it would have been a lot easier if I’d fallen into one when I first came to poetry.

Aside from the written interview, check out an mp3 file of Jihyun Yun reciting a poem entitled "Homonyms".

You can find her at jihyunyun.com and @jihyun.o.yun on Instagram.