If you are like most English-language readers, then indigenous writing from Taiwan in English translation will be largely, if not entirely, terra incognita, which is one reason among many why the publication of Sakinu Ahronglong’s Hunter School, which is about one non-Han indigenous tribe in particular, is important. As translator Darryl Sterk explains in his brief introduction, Sakinu speaks Paiwanese, an Austronesian language that, according to the “Out of Taiwan” hypothesis, shares a common ancestor with Polynesian languages as well as Tagalog, Malay, Hawaiian, and Maori. And as Sakinu himself informs his readers in his own introduction, the reconstruction of Paiwan culture, under threat by external forces, not only provides the impetus behind the text, but also an underlying life’s purpose.
Written in 1998, awarded the Wu Yung-fu Literature Prize in 2000, adapted into a film in 2005 (“The Sage Hunter”), and based loosely on his own life, Sakinu’s Hunter School (the title refers to an actual school that Sakinu had established) tells the fictional story of an indigenous Taiwanese man’s attempts to reconnect with his ancestral Paiwan identity and thereby to re-inscribe that identity for future generations. Given their rather episodic feel, the respective parts of the text, which can be read as a novel, novella, collection of tales, or even a work of autofiction, have been re-arranged by Sterk to form a more or less chronological progression, from the narrator’s Paiwan boyhood and rites of passage following in the footsteps of his hunter father to his more fully formed sense of Paiwan identity, history, and heritage as an adult.
Among other things, Sakinu is deeply invested in explorations of kinship—with one’s family, cultural history, and the natural world. Tracking flying squirrels in mountain forests with his father becomes a college of sorts for Sakinu, “a hunter school, where you majored in hunting philosophy” and are taught to “treat animals as you would human beings […] not just in order to get the better of them, but also in order to learn to respect them.” Contrary to modernity, which seeks to conquer the material world and its phenomena, traditional Paiwan culture teaches that one should maintain “an attitude of respect for everything in the realm of nature” as well as “an ability to relate to each creature in nature like it is a fellow person,” a lesson reinforced when hunting mountain boar.
Hunter School is also a retrospective and retroactive work, its author a writer in exile seeking a return to an ancestral homeland through myth, imagination, and language. There is his grandfather and “the wisdom that nature had given him” after years of cultivating fields of millet in the shadow of a mountain and migratory birds (“hungry ghosts”), or his grandmother, with her teeth stained red from betel nut, and her “beautiful and moving” stories of ancestors who would turn into birds and fly away, or the laborious process of producing millet wine, which was “a driver of indigenous society and a symbol of continuity” that would aid in the recovery “of our lost tribal histories.” And there is also the exile of words, the many Paiwanese terms and expressions—likucu (“talking all the time”), tapau (“a shed”), ina (“mother”), vuvu (a dear relative, alive or dead, old or young)—adrift in a sea of Mandarin (and English translation).
But the period of exile is temporary, and the journey brings with it both separation and recognition.
There are moments of clarity in everyone’s life, and for me the moment of greatest clarity came when I stood on the top of the Ta-she Mountain in Pingtung County in southwestern Taiwan and looked down at the old tribal village in the valley. In that moment I perceived the Paiwan-ness in our traditional slate houses and in our stunning totemic carvings of the hundred pacer snake. My tears gently fell. I stood there all emotional for the longest time. It was as if I were an orphan boy finally learning his parentage.
As he gradually inducts the reader into the tribe and its unique practices (e.g. headhunting and totemic tattoos), Sakinu’s unapologetic celebration of Paiwan customs and identity has a reanimating effect. Of particular importance is the harvest festival (Masaru) in which various generations within his village are gathered together “singing their own songs, dancing their own dances, wearing their own costumes, and celebrating their own harvest ritual.” One elder proclaims, “Let us sing them [traditional songs] together […] to let everyone know that we are called Kacalisiyan” or “people of the slopes”, the Paiwanese word for “indigenous”, When reflecting on the success of the festival, Sakinu states emphatically,
Finally, we stood up. Bravely we came out of the shadows, proudly we could be ourselves, no longer under the influence of other groups. We are proud of our beautiful Paiwan culture.
In the space between there and here, Sakinu’s Hunter School not only bears the weight of cultural memory, but makes it matter both for his own people and for those beyond the borders of his ancestral homeland. And the corpus of Taiwanese indigenous writing in English translation is richer as a result.