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 Ruth Matanda, 5/8/22

Many indigenous people have fallen into the cities, becoming urban indigenes. They do the work nobody wants to do, the roughest tasks, in the most unprotected environments.” (“Seeking a Son” p.98)

In his semi-autobiographical novel Hunter School Paiwan author Sakinu Ahronglong reflects on the plight of many Taiwanese Indigenous peoples in modern society who as the stories show have (more or less) been reduced to bodies only suitable for manual labour, are ostracised and viewed as inferior by the dominant Han population and considered as nothing more than drunken nuisances.

Refusing to allow himself to be defined by outsiders, Hunter School follows Sakinu’s quest to identify for himself what it means to be Paiwan as he takes control of the narrative to shed some light on the traditions, values and myths of the Paiwan people. Hunter School does a great job of introducing aspects of Paiwan culture and in exploring the Paiwan experience in modern Taiwanese society.

The stories “Monkey King” and “Seeking a Son” (which I personally thought were the standouts in the collection) both embody the connecting themes of man coexisting with nature, identity (and loss of it) and the struggle for survival in harsh, unforgiving environments.

I enjoyed reading about Sakinu’s desire to revive his people’s history. For me this wasn’t just about Sakinu finding his identity, it also seemed to challenge the idea that change is inherently linked to progress. In the story “The Wine Can Sing” Sakinu shows how destructive change can be especially if it is forced on a group of people and how for minority groups change usually means assimilating to the dominant groups’ way of life, adopting their culture, partaking in their customs and ways of life often at a loss of your own. For Sakinu to proudly proclaim he is Paiwan, is for him to defy a society that tells him to be ashamed of his indigenous ancestry.

I think that Darryl Sterk has done a good job with the translation which was easy to follow. However, one problem I do have regarding the language is that at times the writing came across as simplistic, lacking depth and nuance. I’m not sure whether this is due to the difficulty in conveying some of the dialogue in English or whether this is an issue with the original source material. The storytelling also felt shallow and with Sakinu mostly repeating the same narrative in most of the stories and not really adding anything which he hadn’t already previously told us or explored. I would have enjoyed the collection far more had the other stories followed a similar structure to “Seeking a Son” and “Monkey King” which struck the right balance between telling and showing and maintaining an unpredictable tone.

Whilst I admired Sakinu’s resilience when it came to reviving forgotten traditions and celebrating his heritage when others such as his own father shunned it, part of me was hoping that Sakinu would also be able to recognise the not-so-good aspects of his culture; the heteronormativity; the sexism and harmful gender roles and expectations illustrated in “My Wife is Pingu” and the abuse within the community which we saw in the story “Hawk Man”. Throughout the book, Sakinu seems to imply that everything Paiwan is good and that it was the introduction of foreign culture which has poisoned the community; this black and white perspective and demonisation of cultures that are not Paiwan is disappointing and in a way allows the aforementioned issues to continue unaddressed. I think it would have been more thought-provoking and meaningful had Sakinu confronted these problems and thought critically about them, examining what it means to remain truly faithful to his culture and preserve all aspects of it when there are many harmful practices embedded within it.

Whilst the book only depicts one aspect of Taiwanese Indigenous culture and tradition and thus shouldn’t be taken as a representation of all Indigenous peoples and their culture; given how little literature has been translated to English regarding Taiwanese Indigenous communities, I was expecting more from the collection but was left feeling slightly underwhelmed. Nonetheless, I recognise the literary and cultural importance of the book and the significance it has in helping outsiders such as myself become more familiar with not only the past of Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples but also their present status in Taiwanese society. Through this book, I have had the opportunity to read about their rich mythology and stories which are often not given the space to be recounted.

Reviewed by Ruth Matanda

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