Jihyun Yun: On Food and the Language of Intimacy

An interview conducted by Maddie Woda

Jihyun Yun was first published in The Columbia Review‘s 100th Volume with her piece, “The Leaving Season.” Yun’s writing uses food—its preparation, consumption, and cultural significance—to reflect on themes like womanhood and familial grief. Her first book of poetry (which includes “The Leaving Season”) won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize for poetry in 2019 and came out September 1st, 2020 from the Nebraska Press. Jihyun and I caught up over email after the release of her book.

Readers of your work will recognize a number of poems in Some Are Always Hungry (including “The Leaving Season,” which appeared in the memorial 100th issue of The Columbia Review). How long has this project been in progress? Did you find that your style changed over the course of the project?

The oldest poem in this book is “Fish Head Soup” which I wrote when I was brand new to poetry in junior year of my undergraduate studies at UC Davis, while “Husband Stitch” is the newest. I suppose by measure of the oldest poem, the book has been a work in progress for eight years. Though, it wasn’t until around 2016 when I figured out the right title that it started taking a shape I felt could actually be fashioned into a cohesive manuscript.

The order of poems in the book is more or less chronological, both historically and in regards to the order in which they were written. When I revisit the manuscript and read it front to back, I can see my style evolving. The latter half of the book is more playful with form while the earlier poems are just a little bit more austere. 

You often write about food, one of my favorite subjects to read in poetry. I constantly think about your tweet: “I’m totally weak for the word persimmon. Every time I see it in a poem, I’m won over. What’s up with that” (@JihyunYunPoetry), as it encompasses how I feel about so many themes. Has food always felt like an integral part of your life? When did you begin to recognize it in a creative context? 

Definitely! Food was an integral part of how my family showed and received love, so in that way it was absolutely central in our relationships. What we ate or did not and how held an internal language all its own. For example, if we fought, we would say sorry by leaving a plate of peeled fruits by the door. If the fruit was untouched and oxidizing, you knew the fight was dead serious and the silent treatment would probably drag into the week. My grandfather never vocalized being pleased with me, but if I did something he deemed worthy of praise, he would bring home a bunch of premium beef so we could have grilled short rib. 

I’ve always loved writing about food, I think partially because I’m not a particularly cerebral writer and rely almost entirely on senses. What’s more sensory than tearing into the head of a fish to pick out the hard-earned meat off the jaw? How could I grow up eating a cuisine that demands such tactile interaction and not want to write about it?

I have to ask as a follow up question: what are some of your favorite places to eat in NYC?

I miss so many restaurants in NYC! I have to give a shoutout to my old stomping grounds in Manhattan’s Koreatown. I think Bangia (a Korean style pub I used to work at!) has the best army stew (the soup referenced in my poem “War Soup”) in NYC. For the best Korean food in the city though, you’ll have to head into the less train-accessible areas of Flushing. I really loved eating my way through the Chinese food court in the basement of New World Mall, also in Flushing. There is no bad food option in that food court, but I particularly loved the stalls that sold spicy Mala crawfish and Sichuan boiled fish. There is a café/ eatery near 145th and Edgecombe in Harlem called The Edge that serves really delicious Caribbean-fusion brunch food and during off hours, it’s a great place to just grab coffee and get work done. Also, Spain Restaurant in West Village for $5 glasses of wine and complimentary tapas. I’m really rooting for all these places to pull through the financial burdens brought on by the pandemic. 

Some Are Always Hungry focuses not just on food, but particularly Korean dishes prepared by your mother and grandmother (and their mothers and grandmothers). Did you conduct research during the writing process outside of your family members? Were there any Korean writers from whom you drew inspiration while writing? 

I did some light research just to ensure that I was getting all of the basic facts of 20th century Korean history correct, but my book didn’t end up requiring much archival research since it was so heavily focused on anecdotes and family testimony. I did try to seek out information about my Grandmother’s side of the family in Pyongyang a few years ago after she unearthed a letter she had received in the 90’s from North Korea. I was interested in adding those voices to the narrative strands of the book, but it ended up being fruitless. I do have pages and pages of notes transcribing my grandmother and mother’s recollections though, if that counts as research! 

I read lots of Korean writers while writing Some Are Always Hungry. Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special to our Species is a book I return to often because of the compassionate and masterful way she handles testimony. I’ve always loved Chang Rae Lee novels, especially The Surrendered. I read all of Han Kang’s translated novels, as well as The White Book in the original Korean, though it took forever. I’m really motivated to improve my Korean so I can read original texts with more ease! I also always have Suji Kwock Kim’s Notes From the Divided Country in my head, but that book is so affecting to me I strangely don’t often revisit it, even though it is one of my favorite collections.

In your current collection, “War Soup” stands out to me, as it is formatted as a recipe. Why did this form appeal to you? Did you experiment with other forms before settling on a recipe? Do you find cookbooks or family recipes to be sources of inspiration?

I love reading cookbooks and definitely read a lot of them while writing the recipe poems in Some Are Always Hungry! It seems like I’m in a minority here, but I adore reading recipe preambles, even the ones that sprawl at essay length going through the entire lineage of the dish. I think reading about the cook’s personal history with each dish we are then taught how to make changes the cooking experience as well as the tasting experience. Food is always best when it feels personal.  

I have always admired how you draw your poems into the 21st century, even when writing about your grandparents or your grandparents’ grandparents. The epigraph to your poem “Diptych of Animal and Womb” came from r/braincels on Reddit. How do you see poetry, whether the writing or sharing of it, changing as NYC continues to conduct all events online?

As an author debuting right now, there is so much I mourn about what is missed not having in-person readings, but I’m actually very grateful about this new digital reading terrain that has been forged. The wider inclusivity of online events has been very beautiful to see. Now readers who may not live in tour destination cities can still take part in launch-night magic and writers who don’t have the funds to travel or take time off work are less stymied. I feel that it opens the door wider for all parties, and that is wonderful. I am also thinking of how online readings have potential to be even more accessible in the future with closed captioning. I co-curate a virtual reading series for 2020/2021 debut poets called Debut Revue with fellow Debut poet Emma Hine (Stay Safe, Sarabande Books 2020) and all of our readings are streamed on YouTube specifically for the closed captions. Even at the end of all this, when it is safe for us to gather again, I don’t see virtual readings slowing down. I’m looking forward to the day when authors can safely hybridize their tours. 

I suppose this would be a great time for me to plug a reading I’m doing for my book! On September 23rd, my press-mate Megan Cummins and I will be giving a reading hosted by the Lincoln bookstore Francie & Finch, University of Nebraska Press, and Prairie Schooner. It would be lovely to see people there!