‘Hunter School’ by Sakinu Ahronglong (Review)

When Honford Star, a new press promoting literature from east Asia, popped up a couple of years back, I enjoyed all four of their initial offerings, but after bringing out that first set of books, they took a break to regroup and plan their next steps.  It’s unfortunate that the year they chose to relaunch happened to be 2020, and their next couple of books have already, sadly, been postponed until 2021.  However, they did manage to get one release out this year, and it’s another very different, and entertaining choice.  Let’s head off to Taiwan, then, to spend some time among the trees with a man passionate about his ancestry – and occasionally in the company of his dad 😉

Hunter School (translated by Darryl Sterk, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of stories told by Sakinu Ahronglong, a member of Taiwan’s indigenous Paiwan people.  Having grown up with a good grounding of the traditional way of life, he became dismayed at how his culture was gradually disappearing under the onslaught of technological progress and the influence of the outside world, deciding to write down memories of his childhood and stories told to him by his father and grandparents.  The result is an intriguing and entertaining mix of tales, providing insights into a very different way of life, and into the writer’s own character.

The pieces are organised into three sections, with the first, ‘A Paiwan Boyhood‘, showing young Sakinu learning from his family as he goes about his daily life.  However, where for most of us that would involve school and the odd part-time job, for the writer it’s all about getting out into the mountain forests and learning how to hunt.  The first few stories all feature lessons from his father about the animals the Paiwan share their land with, and the respect owed them, yet there’s also a gentle humour to the pieces as the young boy’s father cheekily mocks his son:

“Dad, is there really a college for flying squirrels?”
“Yes, there sure is.  They all attend their classes at night.”  I didn’t get it, so father went on to explain, “They go to night school because they’re nocturnal.  They often get together for midnight cram sessions on the principles of survival.  Fleeing and hiding from eagles are compulsory credits.  Ouwitting hunters is an advanced elective.”
‘The Flying Squirrel College’, p.7 (Honford Star, 2020)

Young Sakinu believes his dad, but the squirrel they deal with in this story is no ordinary school graduate, showing tricks he must have learned during tertiary squirrel education 😉

Another focus of this first section is memories of a traditional way of life.  In ‘Grandpa’s Millet Field’, an older Sakinu returns to the village and drives off to see his grandfather at his millet field, amazed by the old man’s ability to take care of the field himself, and by the way he allows the birds to share in the harvest.  However, in other stories, the nostalgia is tinged with sadness as the writer regrets the loss of his culture.  This is particularly evident in ‘Wine Can Sing’, where he laments how modern alcohol has replaced traditional millet wine in his village, destroying the associated customs at the same time.

The effect of the outside world on indigenous people is covered in more detail in the second part, ‘Indigenous Trajectories’.  Here Ahronglong shows native people venturing out into the big cities and the exploitation they suffer there, with several stories featuring the writer’s encounters with other indigenous people.  ‘The Fisherman’s Lament’ focuses on a man about to set off for sea, not knowing when he’ll return, while ‘Seeking a Son’ has Sakinu trying to help an old man who has come to Taipei to find his son after not hearing from him for months.  In both of these pieces, the indigenous people are looked down upon by the urban Taiwanese, and the writer feels both pity and shame for the way they’re treated.

One of the better stories here, and the longest piece in the book, is ‘Finding a Father’, an epic tale of how Ahronglong and his younger brother travel to Taipei to visit their father, only to get lost (owing mainly to their father’s very imprecise directions…).  The story captures the fear of country folk perfectly, with the writer terrified of the big city and the dangers it conceals, fearing passers-by and taxi-drivers, and not knowing how to get in touch with his father.  Even buying something to eat is fraught with difficulty, especially when everything costs so much more than it does back home…

However, the final section of the book, ‘Reclaiming What Was Lost’, takes a different approach.  Here the tone is far more positive, and Ahronglong’s stories are those of redemption and refinding his culture.  ‘The Harvest Festival’ is a description of how the Paiwan celebrated using their own songs and dances for the first time in decades, while ‘My Name is Paiwan’ sees the writer planning a traditional wedding (against the wishes of his father, who has converted to Christianity).  Meanwhile, the final story, ‘My Wife is Pingpu’, has the writer helping his wife, who hails from another indigenous tribe, search for her own roots.  According to our friend, no matter what your heritage, everyone has the right to know about their past.

Hunter School is a wonderful collection of stories, and even if Ahronglong doesn’t really think of himself as a writer, the book is well crafted, with Sterk capturing the humour and poignancy of the tales.  There’s a clever mix of personal anecdotes, reflections on the past and native myths (occasionally on the same page), and it’s all held together with a generous dollop of humour:

Her memory’s as good as it has ever been.  She remembers things that happened in the past as if they were yesterday.  She likes to tell stories, and I like to listen so much that I don’t have time to go to the bathroom, for fear of missing the best part.
‘The Warrior Who Crossed the Sea’, p.80

However, despite the often rose-coloured view of the past, there’s usually an acknowledgement that much of this is gone, and that the connection his people had with nature has become fragmented, at risk of being lost forever.

And that is the whole ethos behind Hunter School, a book that is just a part of Ahronglong’s mission to help his people reclaim their heritage.  In his translator’s note, Sterk discusses the situation of indigenous languages and cultures in Taiwan, as well as describing Ahronglong’s status as a cultural ambassador for the Paiwan people.  This (self-imposed) role includes an actual ‘Hunter School’, where the writer teaches a new generation about their culture, and you get the feeling that all of this is the writer’s vocation:

But even when my father called me Satan for reconstructing the culture of our tribe, I did not waver.  Never have I wavered since I made my choice.  I have never complained nor regretted a thing.
For I am Paiwan!  This is an unalterable fact.  The beauty of Paiwan culture attracts me profoundly.  In fact, it has become my faith and identity.
‘Introduction’, p.x

Let’s wish him good luck in his mission, and given that Hunter School is just the first of several books he’s written, let’s hope Honford Star (and Sterk) get around to bringing us more of his stories in the future.

Before I finish for today, here’s some brief information about the two books that Honford Star have pushed back to next year.  First up is Astral Season, Beastly Season by Tahi Sai (translated by Kalau Almony), a Japanese YA/Teen book due out in January.  That will be followed in February by South Korean writer Bae Myung-hoon’s work Tower (translated by Sung Ryu), a collection of connected stories described as both sci-fi and political satire.  Both books sound intriguing, so roll on 2021 – for many other reasons, too 😉

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