Interview with Jihyun Yun
If we feel estranged from the country of our ancestors, and rejected from the ones in which we physically exist, where can we return except our bodies?
Jihyun Yun's book Some Are Always Hungry—winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize—is coming out in two weeks from the University of Nebraska Press, and we couldn't be more thrilled to sit down and talk with her about her book, craft, favorite font, and more.
JIHYUN YUN is a Korean-American poet, educator & Fulbright Research Fellow. A winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, her full length collection SOME ARE ALWAYS HUNGRY will be published by The University of Nebraska Press in September 2020. She received her BA in Psychology from UC Davis, and her MFA from New York University where she was a fully funded fellow. Originally from California, she now resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
RS: Your first book, Some Are Always Hungry, comes out in September. The blurb provided by your publisher says, “Through the vehicle of recipe, butchery, and dinner table poems, the collection negotiates the myriad ways diasporic communities comfort and name themselves in other nations, as well as the ways cuisine is inextricably linked to occupation, transmission, and survival.” Can you talk a little bit about how this collection explores food production/consumption as an archive of the family’s experience? Do you see this collection (or poetry in general) as doing a kind of archival work?
JY: I think all poems, though of course some more than others, do archival work to some extent. Whether it be poetry of witness that is overtly archival and concretely historical, or more diaphanous, language-driven poems that archive emotional or cerebral landscapes, I view poems as a collective reservoir of information and imagination. The archive may be fictionalized or even inaccurate, but in a poem’s creation, something has been cataloged.
In my poetry, I use food as my main tool for this task because it is the love language of my family, and thus unlocks more doors to conversations (and thus poems) than anything else. If I ask my grandmother how she lived during occupation or her war, she’ll flit around the question imprecisely, but if I ask her what she ate and who she ate it with, the somatic memory of that food will come to fill the gaps of her failing memory. Last year, she picked two pieces of pine resin from a tree for us to chew like gum as we walked around The Korean War museum in Seoul. She didn’t say a word while we toured the museum, even though it was an exhibit archiving a history she lived through, but once she started eating the resin from the trees, the taste triggered a specific point of memory for her and she began telling me stories.
It is interesting to see how inextricable food is from memory. The home for a lot of us, perhaps more so for immigrant families, is archived entirely on the tongue, in language and in taste. My grandparents recently repatriated to Korea after more than forty years living in the United States and they claim that, due to the industrialization of farming, everything from water to spices to fish tastes different from what they remembered and this alone makes the country they grew up in feel foreign. In the United States, their language and continued rituals of Korean food were their only salient tethers to their country, and that’s been cut. If we feel estranged from the country of our ancestors, and rejected from the ones in which we physically exist, where can we return except our bodies? I am interested in archiving these questions in my poems.
RS: In that same vein: your poem “War Soup” starts off as a formulaic recipe before it transcends its “ingredients.” I’m interested in your thoughts on how certain foods/recipes that were created under an oppressor/colonizer out of survival then get co-opted and labeled as particular cuisines by the colonizer—army stew, soul food, even lobster at one point (the culinary industry as a form of gentrification?)
JY: I’m really interested in the gentrification of cuisines, particularly because it feels like fairly new territory to me still. The discourse on the ways imperialism and wars have impacted the evolution of food cultures has been a long conversation, but this wave of white people being called out for co-opting cuisines, building celebrity by making white-washed iterations of culturally significant dishes, and opening up “healthy and improved ethnic” restaurants (I am side-eying the now defunct Lucky Lee’s restaurant in NYC) is a much newer onslaught. Growing up, I was accustomed to my home-packed lunches being openly denigrated by my peers, so seeing this new culinary industry zeitgeist of white chefs making my cuisine accessible to their (also largely white) audiences by vacating it of its history and ghosts feels like a burying.
There was a really interesting article in Eater about this, and I’m thinking about this quote from the article: “Only whiteness can deracinate and subsume the world of culinary influences into itself and yet remain unnamed” (Navneet Alang). I am of course not here to say I am against the diversification of tastes as I feel there is a lot of empathy that can seed from exploring cuisines and learning from the position of a guest about different ingredients and dishes. But it is that wide-eyed and colonistic co-opting that concerns me, the way so many white eaters and cooks approach previously disdained cuisines with an attitude of discovering something new, though it has existed long before their gazes turned upon it.
RS: As a reader, the “recipe as poem” provides an ideal structure, from a preliminary listing of what goes into it, to the imperative demands and the ambiguous audience, while remaining self-contained with the secrecy or heirloom-quality family recipes often have. How do you approach a poem like “War Soup” on a craft level?
JY: I wrote many iterations of War Soup. It has lived stanzaically in tercets, couplets, the prose form, sprawled across the page with lots of white space. I was ultimately drawn to the recipe format because of the inherent urgency and specificity of recipes. There is so much while following a recipe that can go awry, and thus the form necessitates precision: exact measurements of ingredients and time, temperatures, boiling points. I wanted to work with such constraints to urge the language and emotional evocation to be as precise as possible because I was afraid of my words failing the family history these poems revolve around. Initially, the language of “War Soup” was largely utilitarian and imperative all the way through, but the distilled language felt ultimately inaccurate juxtaposed with the content of this poem, so I let the more naked emotionality back in. I am not the most intentional about craft elements in my poems, but crafting several versions of one poem has always helped me view my work from multiple vantage points and choose the iteration that best serves.
RS: You studied psychology at UC Davis before pursuing an MFA at NYU. Did you view this as a lane shift in your career path or was an MFA something you always pictured yourself doing? What inspired you? How does your psych background inform your work or process? What does your writing process look like? (e.g. Are you more inclined to chunk out time in the day to sit down and write or do you wait until you feel inspired? Do you write in series or work on several projects at once?)
JY: Though my family certainly found it to be a jarring lane shift, it felt very organic for me. It was not a planned transition though. I first began writing poetry around my junior year at UC Davis, and before I began writing I had been planning on applying to graduate schools to become a therapist and had been interning at a crisis hotline for several years. I was able to apply a lot of what I learned during my internship and BA into my writing though so I think it was time well spent. One of my main goals with my work is to treat all parties with empathy: my readers, the people or histories I write towards, and, of course, myself. I learned to listen well, when to inquire and when to pull back. I find this constant negotiation is just as important in poetry.
As for my process, I am definitely the type who goes for very long stretches without writing, and then sits down one day to bang out multiple poems at once. My concern is, these moments of inspiration come less and less often with time (at least for me that is). When I first started to write, I always felt inspired and in the mood to create more poems. Maybe it was the newness of it all, that sense of discovery that made me, without even realizing it, carve out time in my busy college schedule to come to the page. It didn’t feel like work; it felt like relief. Of course, the sense of discovery isn’t gone, and I am constantly learning new things about the craft, but I am more distractible and let other responsibilities come between myself and poetry. I am slowly starting to realize that poetry must be a practice like any other, and in order to honor my responsibility to it, I must actively come to it rather than always passively waiting for it to always come first to me.
RS: Do you have a favorite typeface?
JY: I like Calibri Light and Garamond a lot! My book is set in Garamond.