“Some Are Always Hungry” Jihyun Yun (University of Nebraska Press) – book review

Jihyun Yun Some Are Always Hungry book cover

“Some Are Always Hungry” is the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and explores a family’s heritage through wartime survival, immigration and inherited trauma using the lens of food and the matrilineal line. A visit to seafood markets operating overnight in “All Female” ends,

“It’s always the girls. For everything.
What was the last time you’d heard
of rooster soup? We put the bodies
to boil in salt and broth.

Outside the winter
interrogates, our windows
fogged. If our feast ever happens,
if time has not misplaced us,
may these girls rise violet
from the pot, untangle their legs
from perilla and leek
and make for the sea
with their limbs in their teeth.”

The role of caring and nurturing through food falls to women, who pass the tasks on to daughters. That’s not to say men can’t cook or shouldn’t be taught alongside their sisters, but society still expects women to shop, prepare and cook food on a regular basis. Here the speaker imagines the female crabs and fish rebelling and escaping back to the sea, back to a place known as home and supposedly safe. Where perhaps, they raise their own young and nurture them.

Yun’s family history lies in Korea and in 1953, Korea was still at war as “Diptych of a Girl in 1953” (a hanbok is a traditional Korean dress) acknowledges,

“Baby brother, I’ve counted coins
under a fat apple moon as soldiers
scraped skin off the rocks outside.
Your tuition in hand, I am naked
as dusk. The husk of my hanbok
unfurled before a flag whose stars
I’ve laid under – stunned
……..night after night.

Somehow I was a virgin before this.

They call me ‘western wife’
or rag. Is the moniker still wretched
if it becomes literally true? Soon
I will follow a white man to America,
his war-relic bride. How to tell you
without vacating all trust?

Tell me again of love
and its dark mirrors:”

War disrupts food supplies and allows black markets to flourish. While men are conscripted into fighting, women have to scrape by as best they can. Many will be sexually exploited and either cast aside or taken back to a soldier’s home country as a bride – some may believe they made their own choice, some will be forced into marriage by families pushed into desperation. The speaker here doesn’t believe her marriage is for love, but leaving her home country for a foreign land, the hell of war for an uneasy peace.

The war came after the Japanese occupation of Korea where Koreans were exploited and forced to use the Japanese language. Yun’s poem, “Recipe”, is based on recipe for a chicken stew laid out with ingredients and stepped instructions. “She” is the grandmother and the Korean script is in the original poem,

“6. She calls the stew dakdoritage, despite controversy. Some believe it translates roughly into ‘chicken-chicken stew’, dak meaning ‘chicken’ in Korean, dori derived from the Japanese: tori (bird). A slim silhouette of occupation tethered to our language like a haunting. Others say this is not true. Rather they posit the etymological root of dori lies in 도라내다, ‘to cut out or discard’. These arguments feel so far from me, yet after decades come and gone, Grandma cannot discard Japanese. She says tamanegi for yangpa, shio for sogeum, as if to remind how close we came to erasure. Our tongues boiled down to language, broth skimmed of birth fat.

“7. During occupation, this tongue was dangerous, but still we wanted to keep it. We met under bridges to flex our Korean. In the quiet and moonlight. Under cicadas and sound-swell. With hands clasped. Once, I watched an imperial soldier cave a man’s face in for refusing to give up our mother tongue. The soldier’s own face gave away nothing. When I was bad, mother said the Japanese would come and get me. I didn’t fear demons lurking in dark corners of our room, only other Asian faces.

“8. She reaches into the bowl to claim the throat. The spine curved down as if caught in a moment of prayer. Soon it’s laid bare, just sinew and ridged bone. Chili studded, stained red, she licks her fingers clean.”

Banned from using her own language, the grandmother now is left with a muddle of Korean and the Japanese words she was forced to adopt and now cannot lose even as she chops up vegetables to add to stew. Others try to reclaim elements of their mixed language by finding Korean origins for Japanese elements, rather than face up to the actual reason for Japanese being present on a Korean speaker’s tongue. The trauma of occupation lives on in grandmother’s patchwork of language as she was taught to fear the Japanese in order to survive.

In the title poem, a chicken thigh is passed around the table, none of the women wanting to be the one to take it until grandmother picks it up and,

“She leaves nothing: the cartilage
that cradles, the muscle, the jut of tendon,
she takes that too.

I hate to watch her eat
the way she squalls like one
just discovering plenty
and fearing she will never trust it.”

The grandmother leaves only the bones. The granddaughter watches, knowing the old woman has known deprivation and starvation. Famine was common in Korea in the run up to 1950. The way she eats is a reminder that although she now has no need to worry where the next meal is coming from, she can’t let go of her past.

Trying to let go of the past seems to be a theme in “Reversal” where the instructions are to “De-Korean the broth: vacate its ginger and onion and garlic. Its rice wine and red swelter,” and ends,

“Leave the kitchen. Seek the sow and un-slaughter her. But if you find the pig dismembered and cannot bear it, grant yourself permission to not tend to her re-memberment. Remember: just because you’re a daughter doesn’t mean you must mend. Instead, let her tend to herself. Her un-thatched belly calling for return of lost things: bone, honeycomb maw, her clumsy animal heart until she speaks: Dear Reader, I so want to survive this. Please lead me whole into another season so I may dare begin again.”

Although the daughter is aware of previous generational trauma, she acknowledges it’s not up to her to fix it She can learn about her heritage without being scarred by it or at least by offering hope for a better future.

“Some Are Always Hungry” is a testament to Korean strength, particularly through matrilinear lines. It focuses on food as a source of nourishment both of body and soul, a means of creating a narrative to explore past trauma and how it is passed from grandmother to granddaughter. However, there’s a garnish of hope in that understanding the past helps us connect to the present and look to a future free of occupation where recipes can be adapted to survive. Yun writes with grace and elegant rhythm. Her poems reward re-reading.

“Some Are Always Hungry” is available from Nebraska University Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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