Hunter School, by Sakinu Ahronglong

translated by Darryl Sterk

Honford Star, 2020

Publisher’s Blurb

Hunter School is a work of fiction consisting of recollections, folklore, and autobiographical stories from the perspective of an aboriginal Taiwanese man aiming to reconnect with his lost tribal identity. A common theme running throughout this charming but important book is that of a young man learning about himself and his heritage – from the past, elders, ancestors, and nature itself. This award-winning book is a highly readable and touching work with great insight into the unique aboriginal Taiwanese societies.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Riya Shah, 17/4/22

Hunter School is a deeply moving story centring around the issue of identity. The protagonist of this fictionalized autobiography is Sakinu, an aboriginal Taiwanese who belongs to the Paiwan tribe. This was perhaps the first time that I came across this word. The short novella draws from folklore, autobiographical stories, anecdotes and is an earnest attempt to restore, reconstruct and revive the Paiwan culture. Divided into three parts, the story spans through Sakinu’s life, from boyhood to finding his true Paiwan identity.

The first part, “A Paiwan Boyhood” retells Sakinu’s life as a young Paiwan native which includes many life lessons from his hunter father – his kama. The stories, The Flying Squirrel College, The Mountain Boar School, and The Monkey King describe how the hunting lessons taught by his kama left a deep impact on Sakinu. To sum up his hunting philosophy: “relate to each creature in nature like it is a fellow person”. This idea of revering all of nature’s creations echoes in many indigenous cultures’ way of living. There is a saying in India which aptly describes this philosophy, “The visible part of God is Nature and the invisible part of Nature is God”

In Grandpa’s Millet Field and Wine Can Sing, Sakinu laments the loss of the traditional art of making millet wine which has been replaced by modern alcohol these days.

The second and third sections are mingled and give us a larger picture of Sakinu’s adulthood and modern life. In the second part, “Indigenous Trajectories”, we see Sakinu telling stories of the effect of the outside world on their indigenous identity. People moving out from the hills and experiencing modernity for the first time brings its own set of problems. In Seeking a Son, we see Sakinu helping an old man to locate his son in Taipei. The story, Finding a Father, perfectly captures the insecurities faced by the tribal folk when they enter big cities. Here Sakinu describes an epic tale of how he and his younger brother got lost while travelling to Taipei for the first time.

The final section, “Reclaiming what was Lost” is an unapologetic celebration of Sakinu’s Paiwan-ness. He even goes against his father’s wishes to have a Christian wedding, and goes on to conduct his wedding ceremony with a Pingpu woman, following all Paiwan rites. In The Harvest Festival, Sakinu narrates how the Paiwan of Lalaoran came together and ‘sang with the long-lost voice of the ancestors.’ The need to be distinct from the majoritarian Han Chinese is also explored in the stories. In the last story, My Wife is Pingpu, we see his wife saying, “I’m savage, not Han Chinese. I don’t want to be Han Chinese.” This again showcases a shared feeling amongst almost all indigenous cultures, the need to preserve their true identity.

“Translation is not only about the transfer of language but also the transfer of emotion and culture.” In this regard, Darryl Sterk has done an amazing job. Because of his succinct and lucid translation, we can get a sense of actually experiencing the characters conflicts and emotions.

The idea that stayed with me after reading this piece was that ‘identity’ is a very strenuous topic to understand but becomes very interesting if understood. Hunter School is an uplifting, moving, pleasurable and informative read which takes you for a deep dive into the unknown world within Taiwan. The Paiwan people had been in cultural hibernation for almost half a century. With Sakinu as their ‘cultural’ ambassador, we got a chance to discover the history, culture, traditions and politics of the Paiwans.

Reviewed by Riya Shah

 

Reviewed by Michelle Deeter, 18/2/22

Hunter School, by Sakinu Ahronglong, is a gentle story that is lovingly written and meticulously translated. It’s amusing in the beginning, when Sakinu is still a young boy learning how to hunt. It’s more reflective in the middle, when Sakinu begins to learn more about the world and see how other people struggle to live. These stories demonstrate Sakinu’s empathy for others and his forgiving nature. The end, when Sakinu is deciding on how he wants to have a wedding, comes a little suddenly, but it rounds his life out nicely. I like how it ends on a positive note and I like how Sakinu learns from a large cast of characters rather than just his father or his grandfather.

There are a few things that I would like to nitpick about the stories. The fisherman’s lament was good, and I admired how Sakinu was brave enough to engage with the fisherman rather than just pretending his problems didn’t exist. But Hawk Man disappointed me, because Sakinu fails to call out the domestic abuse in Sheng-hsiung’s family. Sakinu says Sheng-hsiung’s father “was very, very strict with him” and describes how Sheng-hsiung sometimes stayed with Sakinu because Sheng-hsiung was “too scared to go home”. But there’s no criticism of the way Sheng-hsiung’s parents are treating him. The story does mention how the education system is failing the indigenous people in Taiwan and things have to change in order for Taiwan to treat all of its people fairly. But to imply that the way Sheng-hsiung was raised was fine was a disappointment.

Then in Wine Can Sing, Sakinu claims that “there was no alcohol poisoning in our traditional millet culture.” I think that the easily available alcohol from the public liquor bureau probably has “eroded [his] traditional culture” but I don’t believe everything was wonderful before the public liquor bureau arrived. It’s not necessary to view everything indigenous as an unmitigated good and everything from Han Chinese society as an unmitigated bad. I think it’s too binary and too simplistic.

The translation strikes the right tone and it is clear that Darryl Sterk did a good amount of research. In the introduction Sterk explained he was able to meet Sakinu and see the places that are described in the stories. This was extremely valuable because it helped make the stories feel authentic. I think finding a way to distinguish “Mountain Mandarin” from standard Mandarin is a real challenge, and there isn’t a tried-and-true strategy for dealing with accents, dialects, or word choice. Sterk does an admirable job here.

There was only one tiny aspect that I found inauthentic, and that was the dialogue of some of the characters. (I’m nitpicking again—the translation was excellent overall!) In his efforts to make Sakinu’s grandmother and grandfather sound like less educated mountain folk, Sterk uses on turns of phrase that sound marked, such as “When did’ja roll on in?” It mostly works, but sometimes the tone feels inconsistent, making the characters less believable. Grandpa goes from “it’s been a right while” and “make love” to “represents the continuation of our family life and our tribal culture” to “her boobies are nice and big.” Then again, avoiding vivid words and turns of phrase can lead to a different problem: making the characters all sound identical, as if they all have extremely similar voices. And there might have been some other factors at play—perhaps the dialogue was not authentic to begin with because Sakinu had put words in his grandfather’s mouth to fit the narrative, or perhaps the editor did not want to lean into a style that would have expressed a more consistent country twang.

Overall I found the book highly enjoyable and it was eye-opening to learn about the erosion of Paiwan culture from a first-hand account. I would recommend this book.

Reviewed by Michelle Deeter