Jihyun Yun’s ‘Some Are Always Hungry’ Cooks Multiple Paradoxical Flavours of Identity, Existence, and Civilization Through Poetry

As the title of Jihyun Yun’s poetry volume, Some Are Always Hungry suggests, the poems feature food and hunger in all its forms: the decadent, the delicious, the heartwarming, the sparse and the ravaged. Food is at the center of existence in this collection. Its role in shaping one’s identity, memories and family ties are subtly depicted through the majority of her poems.

Jihyun Yun being a second generation Korean American, the other themes of Some Are Always Hungry revolve around ideas of immigration, feminism, Korean history and her family’s own stories. However, all these themes, like planets, revolve around the sun, food.

The descriptions of food in the poems are always indulgent, even when she speaks of the unimaginable hunger the poems’ persona faced during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Yun brings out both the visceral as well as the subtleties of making and enjoying any meal. She minces no words when it comes to vividly describing the preparation of the meat for the meals. Yet, she can easily and gently introduce the delicateness of enjoying all the ingredients of any dish. For Yun, food was the one crucial link to her past and to her present immigrant identity. This is brought out right at the beginning of the second poem, My Grandmother Thinks of Love While Steeping Tea.

“Drink it all,
dredge the bottom for sunk honey
pull the thumb of ginger in to your mouth
and suck. I mean for you to taste
your inheritance. The gunpowder,
our soil.”

Food is political and not new to the idea of ‘othering.’ This is seen in India as well where food of certain states is considered strange or barbaric. Worldwide as well, the distaste for food consumed by East Asian people, especially China in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, has increased. Although it is alright not to be used to a particular food or having only a set food as one’s comfort food, it is rather narrow-minded to mock cuisines of other countries or cultures merely because they are different from one’s own.

Perhaps as a result of such a constant othering of her own Korean cuisine, in the poem, Benediction as Disdained Cuisine, Yun reclaims all the food items the persona or the poet has forgone. What is powerful about the poem is how it reiterates the phrase, ‘give me’ before listing out the food item the poet has avoided for far too long. Two words repeated are all it takes in a way to make a culinary heritage worthy again. It shows an assertive persona, one who is unwilling to erase her identity.

Food is one sure way to remain true to one’s own culture and identity. This is even truer in Diaspora literature. For Jihyun and her family, food was a way to show affection to each other. This perhaps explains why food is central in her poems. Jihyun Yun explores all facets of food and how it can speak volumes about a person.

Jihyun Yun’s family history and memories are irreversibly linked with the home country, Korea. Her poems throw light on these three aspects through an interplay with food. The poems pull you in with all their tempting aromas, and then throw in the most painful remnants of her family’s history.

For example, the poem, Recipe, reads like a recipe. But Yun also narrates the disquieting experience of the Japanese occupation of Korea. Her grandmother prepares the dish and still confuses the Japanese and Korean words for the food items. Under the Japanese occupation of Korea, Koreans were not allowed to speak their language and were often forced to adopt Japanese names. The fact that the poet’s grandmother still confuses the words and “cannot discard Japanese” shows “a slim silhouette of occupation tethered to our language like a haunting.” Yun smoothly merges the act of cleaving the ingredients to the idea of a cleaved mother tongue or language.

Since preparation of the food is considered largely a womanly task, Yun also explores the notion of female labour and sacrifice. In the opening poem of Some Are Always Hungry, All Female, Yun describes the act of buying food from the market and her grandmother or halmeoni dismantling a crab for a meal. Through the metaphor of women being confined to cook even meat that is female, Yun hopes for freedom. It is a decidedly intrepid poem but one whose boldness and power sneak up on the reader slowly but surely.

Since this is the opening poem, the unexpected juxtaposition of the gendered food and gendered tasks immediately pulls you in and you know at once this book is going to be a remarkable read.

And oh what a treat it is to perceive and absorb all the paradoxical flavours of Yun’s poems in Some Are Always Hungry! From being no holds barred in their directness one moment to scaling back and bringing forth the most insidious of all metaphors in the very next, the poems in Some Are Always Hungry pack a powerful punch. They explore elements of hidden Korean history as well as the current realities of immigrants and assimilation. Yun also audaciously explores feminist topics such as in Menstruation Triptych, she speaks about three different perspectives to the monthly cycle. In Caught, Yun portrays the point of view of a rape victim questioning herself after the crime. It lays bare the constant victim shaming girls are subjected to. The Tale of Janghwa and Hongryeon is a retelling of the eponymous Korean folktale. It is a painful reminder of the many taboos that society still imposes on women.

All in all, Some Are Always Hungry includes a strikingly diverse collection of poems that captivate with both the personal and the historical.

*Disclaimer: A free PDF copy of the book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

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