“What Our Mothers Prepare For Us”: A Review of Jihyun Yun’s Some Are Always Hungry

In her debut collection, Some Are Always Hungry, Jihyun Yun explores a sense of longing and belonging in a constant state of flux—through experiences that are specific to being a Korean-American, immigrant woman. Yun’s speaker visits the persistent hauntings and bodied histories that have made her who she is, compelling the reader to consider the numerous ways in which the past is unfinished. 

I read “Savaging” when it was initially published in The Adroit Journal, and I was struck by how the poem spoke to other Korean immigrant women like me—reminding us of a war-torn, violent history that we are bound to through personal and collective lineages. “Savaging” begins:  

Dear Daughters, when the mind leaves
it leaves swiftly. Today I woke not knowing
which country holds me or if those love
motels stringing neon cords outside my window
were those of Oakland or Seoul. I woke having
forgotten even your faces, but remembered
my hunger. 

This poem goes on to recall historical traumas that make one’s memories precarious and distort one’s sense of home. Throughout her collection, Yun returns to the motif of hunger to illustrate how past pains can crop up in the day-to-day. 

Poems like “Recipe: 닭도리탕” or “Fish Head Soup” appeal to the viscera, evoking the delicious smells and taste of ingredients like gochugaru, ginger, and garlic, to center a culture and its people’s survival on food. In “Recipe: 닭도리탕,” the speaker recalls her grandmother using the Japanese word for “carrot,” instead of the Korean: 

She mistakes the two often, so I know what she means. The skin curls beneath
the paring knife’s persuasion, as I think of colonization via inheritance, via
memory. These words I’ve no reason to know but do.

Home-cooked meals and recipes are more than heirlooms—what our mothers prepare for us plays an indelible part in our nourishment and our thriving, and we cannot ignore how their food bears their lives. Yun’s speaker also investigates the hungers that have gone unfed, the aches that remain persistent. After all, relationships between daughters and mothers, grandmothers, and other family members or beloveds are still flawed.

“Homonyms” playfully addresses the speaker’s relationship to her mother using the word “태우다” (tae-u-da), which means “to burn, charge or singe,” and also “to carry, give a ride, or pick up.” Assuming the voice of the speaker’s mother, she writes:

I burned you. You grew up
burning, bundled on my back
. . . You burned
on the coattails of our immigration.

Already, the doubly-charged words portray the complicated psychology of what love is between mother and child—how a mother’s love can be well-meaning, but can sometimes become too elemental and uncontrollable, especially in the protective mode of an immigrant mom in a foreign country.

I am never tired of reading poetry collections that articulate the vast circumstances and moments in which feelings of pride and shame, or joy and grief, are intertwined and true. There are several moments throughout Yun’s poems that evoke what it means to be a 교포 (gyopo)—to simultaneously feel guilty about not being Korean enough, while doubling down on being Korean. In “I Revisit Myself in 1996,” the speaker announces, 

English has just begun 
to bruise my tongue 
but I am all Korean. 

In that last declaration, there is both boldness and sadness. “But I am all Korean,” reflects a dejected speaker whose face gives her foreignness away despite having learned English. Yet at the same time, in “But I am all Korean,” the reader can almost hear the poet from Oakland say, “I am hella Korean,” as a proud assertion. 

One thing is exceedingly clear in this collection: as a largely confessional book, there is no “I,” no examination of self, without showing how she is first tethered to others, how she is “daughter” before she is herself. The collection’s structure—spanning her grandparents’, great aunt’s, and mother’s lives in Korea to the speaker’s childhood and present day in Oakland, CA—attests to how several histories and cultures are folded into one’s life as a Korean American woman. Some Are Always Hungry is a powerfully wrought book of poems. Yun’s meticulous crafting and incisive lyricism is a testament to her mastery of a poetic imagination. She ultimately conveys a singular existence that is precious and beautiful because of loved ones—those who’d rather perish than see us go hungry. 

Yun, Jihyun. Some Are Always Hungry. University of Nebraska Press. September 2020. 90 pages, $18.