Loveni Enari explains why the poetry of Korean American poet Jihyun Yun is so impressively and lovingly “Pasifika-relatable”.
What could the poetry of a contemporary Korean American poet possibly have to do with Māori and Pasifika peoples?
Well, heaps, actually, and if you give me a chance, I’ll try to show you.
As a literature student way back whenever, I never got poetry. But, thankfully, with the help of a post-colonial literature course at Victoria University and lecturer Dougal McNeil, this has changed — and my purpose here then is to discuss and recommend the beauty of Some Are Always Hungry, a prize-winning collection of poems by poet Jihyun Yun.
Why? Well, it may prove inspiring to a young Tusiata Avia, Witi Ihimaera or Albert Wendt, but also simply because I find it so impressively, lovingly, Pasifíka-relatable.
On the book’s dedication page there’s some verse, which helps sum up both the beauty and enormity of Yun’s poetry and effort, and explain my fascination.
It goes like this:
- of wisdom, splendid columns of light
- waking sweet foreheads,
- I know nothing
- but what I’ve glimpsed in my most hopeful of daydreams
- of a world without end,
- — Li-Young Lee
Is there much more precious than that infinite possibility of life hinted at there?
For a boy growing up in Sāmoa, in a dysfunctional family, bound by the restrictive nature of growing up on a small island with a very public-figure father, the promise of another world out there, beyond Sāmoa’s shores, was vital. This promise was fed to me through books, films and music, a lifeline, nourished here with Yun’s “food and recipe” poetry, which is so much more than that simple description.
There are themes a boy on Aotearoa’s East Coast could get, growing up on the beach, diving for kai moana. Equally, the young South Auckland girl, who reads, but doesn’t get her own situation, because for whatever reason (it’s not always trauma), there’s something missing. Or the ageing South Aucklander, looking back at a lifetime as an immigrant.
I wish I had read this as a young man in Aotearoa.
There are 36 poems in all, so take them softly and slowly, or chomp and munch and slurp them down, but savour their taste whichever way.
It’s all about food.
Except it’s also about the Japanese colonisation of Korea, American invasion, matrilineage, grand/mother/daughter relationships, refugees, feminism, suffering, starvation, poverty and immigration — and a few more I’ve probably missed.
Swap the Japanese and Americans for the British and it could almost be Pasifika. Well, Pasifika, but without the bombs, napalm, demilitarised zone and 30,000 American troops drinking and contributing to the Korean economy, to give you some idea. It is the universality of its themes, however, which makes this collection so relatable, so knowing, so “home”.
It reminds me of how my father used to say: “If you want to eat fish properly, you have to make a noise,” as he homed in on sucking those eyeballs from their sockets. Or how he admired how my Spanish ex-wife would so clinically deal to a pig’s head from the Sāmoan umu, first starting with the delicacy, the brains, before attacking ears, jowls, lips, tongue and snout.
It’s so viscerally similar to Yun’s collection, and one of its main attractions is undoubtedly the poem, “Benediction of a Disdained Cuisine”, a mighty, guts and all celebration of traditional Korean food as looked-down-upon by the host American nation. Here’s an excerpt.
- Give me now what disgusts
- Grilled tongue, entrails fatly
- gleaming. Fiery chicken
- feet with the nails neatly trimmed.
- Minutiae of bone. Spit and keep eating.
- Give me stink. Give me pig
- skin dipped in powdered grain.
- Give me krill and pickled octopus:
- suckers up and gaping.
Her work is raw like kina roe, paua, and slaughtered lamb.
It’s a rallying call in the form of kimchi and Korean chicken feet, that which immigrants hid, in fear of not being accepted, of being branded as different, of not being American enough.
Yun ends the poem:
- Give me all
- I avoided so long for your sake.
- Give me my heritage back.
- Let me suck meat off the shell
- of every animal you won’t eat.
- Give me refuse, and I’ll make it
It’s both hard-hitting and spiritual — what’s not to love? And that glorious food with the best of Korean pride to wash it down is in the James Brown street sound of “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud!” Or, as has been written elsewhere: “I’m heller Korean!”
It’s willing immigrants everywhere to stand up and take ownership of their identity and not cower behind it as if it were a second-class title. Enough of this burdensome, anxiety-producing, imposter syndrome we immigrants have felt the world over, meekly replying to aggressive shop assistants: “No, just looking thanks,” as they follow us around stores.
No. Now is the time to flip the middle finger to those ghosts in our own brains that were keeping us down (or me anyway), dragging us back into mediocrity in fear of exposure of our own real identities and histories, which were supposedly inferior.
As that wonderful Spanishism yells: “Enough already!”
My father, educated at Timaru Boys High School and Victoria University, suffered the shame of having his first name erased on his arrival as a sensitive, fresh-faced 12-year-old from Sāmoa. Too difficult to pronounce for Pālagi tongues, he became “Joe” for the next eight years.
His ambition to become a doctor was also quickly squashed when advised by teachers that “the Polynesian brain was not developed enough to study medicine”.
He studied law and became one of Sāmoa’s first lawyers and Secretary to Government.
He would have loved this poem and would have remarked how much more pleasant an Aotearoa with this mentality is, in contrast to his arrival in 1953.
But, as an immigrant (like me in Spain), it’s not just the national pride that he would have identified with. There’s plenty more in Yun’s wisdom.
Another excerpt, this from the end of “War Soup”:
- Let the noodles wilt
- over broth just before serving.
- At the table, over kerosene flame,
- three generations tend to the pyre that feeds and feeds.
- What a blessing,
- to have passed through hunger.
- I will teach my daughters to bare their palms.
- I will teach them how to beg.
The imagery of hardship, of overcoming difficulty through perseverance and through tradition, of family bonding over food, are all so brilliantly captured by Yun — and the messages are universal and yet so typically Pasifika at the same time.
Three generations of family at the same table, cooking over a flame, the struggle, both physical and economic, a dark constant just below the surface of any conversation, and yet the resilience and pride at having overcome, shining through with that final line boasting her resilience: “I will teach them how to beg.”
The importance of this is reflected all over the world but, for me, it’s starkly clear in the toughness of people in Spain’s post-Civil war period, now in their 80s and older, who survived on homegrown veges plus one slice of pork fat, carefully rationed over a week. Resilience which has been crudely replaced by Spain’s current “ni-ni generación” — “neither-nor generation” — so called because they neither work, nor study, and who end up leaving the parent’s nest in their 30s, if they ever do.
The hardiness to take on life’s arrows must be part of your makeup is Yun’s message to her daughters, just as it was made clear to her mother through the grandmother’s survival narrative as a war refugee, just as it’s made clear to children of immigrants all over the world, whether they are 12-year-old Moroccans, hanging on for dear life under lorries entering Europe, or Sāmoans, 12 to a three-bedroom, one toilet, in Māngere.
Are you tough enough? Yes, we are. Or at least, yes, we must be.
We have no other option. We got on with it and so must you, daughter, and always know, there is no shame in being on the bones of your arse. The shame comes if your reaction to this is not adequate, is the poet’s message through her mother’s eyes.
From “Some Are Always Hungry”, the title poem, she describes her grandmother’s manner of eating:
- She leaves nothing: the cartilage
- that cradles, the muscle, the just 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.
Once again, the universality of Yun’s work is everything. I have always seen people eating like this, both in Sāmoa and in Spain, as if it may be their last decent meal. It comes from an intimate knowledge of scarcity, and, in Sāmoa, it’s often used in humour, to have a laugh at a mate. In Spain, where the memories of real hunger in the post-war period are still very fresh, it’s no laughing matter.
I’ve seen families not serve chicken if “posh” guests were invited as the embarrassment of watching an elderly aunt attack a chicken bone was too much for the host.
I’ve joked that the wild Sāmoans had better table manners than the cultivated Europeans.
But poverty and hunger, or nowadays the still vivid memory of them, are no joke.
The final excerpt I include is from “Praise” and it refers to Yun’s mother at one of her jobs as a dishwasher.
- I remember how once I found her
- wringing dollars in the basement
- stringing them up like egg-fattened fish
- drying on a laundry line.
- A patron had thrown them
- in the oil-slicked sink water;
- Here is a tip for the little assistant.
- I don’t understand what a mother is,
- what toothen thing lives inside for her to take my hand,
- smile proudly, say Daughter,
- this is the richest we have been.
Once again the hardship. Once again the obstinate optimism.
“Que puta es la vida a veces,” my mother-in-law would sometimes say when confronted with news of someone’s misfortune.
“What a whore life can be sometimes.”
This pain and struggle is so beautifully depicted often in this work, and its repetition never tires the reader.
On the contrary, the terrible struggle of both mother, and grandmother, to outlast Japan’s cruel occupation of Korea, rummaging through rubbish dumps for food scraps, supporting the cruelty of men and soldiers, hellbent on breaking women and their spirit, continuing to speak Korean despite the thousands murdered for refusing to adopt the Japanese language as their own, all of this and more, graphically illustrating man’s infinite capacity for cruelty, is a constant thread in this collection.
Not once, however, does it drag the reader down, make you weary.
On the contrary, it’s a hugely uplifting celebration of humanity.
I’m reminded of a trip I took to Madrid recently. I saw some Senegal “ilegales” — yes, there are “illegal humans” in Spanish law — selling T-shirts in the streets.
One of the T-shirts boldly proclaimed, in words shaped in the African continent: “Only One Blood.”
This is poetry, whānau. Not as we know it, yet very much ours all the same, and my, oh my, is it wonderful.
Loveni S Enari (Sāmoa: Vaiala, Safune and Lepā) is a graduate of the first Manukau Institute of Technology journalism course. He has worked as a freelance journalist and sports reporter, and has also been a catering manager, rugby coach, and a teacher and manager of his own English language school in England and then in Spain, where he’s lived for nearly three decades. He recently returned to Aotearoa after 32 years away.
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