Hunter School by Sakinu Ahronglong

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Hunter School by Sakinu Ahronglong

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A lovely introduction to a culture I had not even heard of. If your travels are curtailed it's an ideal time to be discovering vicariously...short, gentle and very informative read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 182 Date: July 2020
Publisher: Honford Star
ISBN: 978-1999791285

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The flyleaf to this little collection tells us that it is a work of fiction. That's possibly misleading. I am not sure whether it is "fiction" in the sense that Ahronglong made it all up, or whether it is as the blurb goes on to say recollections, folklore and autobiographical stories. It feels like the latter. It feels like the stories he tells about his experiences as a child, as an adolescent, as an adult are real and true. But memory is a fickle thing, and maybe poetic licence has taken over here and there, and maybe calling it fiction means that its safer and therefore more people will read it. More people should.

If, like me, you've ever travelled beyond our culturally closest neighbours and if, like me, in doing so you seek out book-shops in the hope that they'll have English-language versions of local folk-tales or fairy-stories, stories-for-children, that were once believed in more than they are now, then this is the book for you. This is the book that I'd have been thrilled to have stumbled across in an out-of-the-way bookshop in Taiwan. I don't know if I'll ever get to Taiwan, or if it has village bookshops with stray copies of English-language tales – so I'm doubly grateful to add it to my collection now.

Sakinu Ahronglong is Paiwan. The Paiwan are one of several tribes indigenous to Taiwan. They have suffered erosion of their culture as many have done around the world by various conquering or settling 'others'. Some brought war, some brought technology, some brought the 'word of God' – all brought a desire for land-ownership and a love of order and rules and a culture of their own which was, allegedly, more civilised. Each eroded slowly, surely, the culture of the Paiwan – sometimes by forcing the compliance with other dictats, sometimes by temptation into easier ways of living, sometimes by simple power of economics requiring the hard labour and uncomplaining nature of those who are driven to have no other choice.

The Paiwan – and the other tribal peoples of Taiwan to whom we're introduced in this little volume – are Austronesian (a new term to me). Those languages of these peoples that are still spoken (including Paiwan, others are lost) share a common ancestor with Polynesian languages and Indonesian, Tagalog, Malay, Hawaiian and Maori. This much I'd learned just strolling through the introduction and the translator's note. Clearly by the time we get from the original language through Mandarin and into English, the nuances of those languages are lost, but the essence of the stories that were told remains.

And the stories are the same stories (but different) that you will find in all indigenous cultures. They tell of respect for nature, and a deep connection with it: the talking to plants and animals and stones and the mountain. They echo with animism which imbues everything that lives (up to an including the land itself) with a spirit and a personality. They talk of reverence for the ancestors and the sense that they are still here with us while also, confusingly, hinted at our having lived past lives as other people in other places. They tell the tall tales that a father tells a small child as a way to teach to them how to be. It is interesting that Ahronglong's father held to the Christian faith and yet – if the stories are autobiographical and not pure fiction (and I'm not sure where the relevant boundary is) – when he took his child into the mountains to hunt – and to keep the school skiving scamp out of trouble on the weekend – there he told what might have been traditional tales about the monkey king and the hundred-pacer snake and the flying squirrel, or might have been things he made up to entertain the child and pass down the connection with the tradition, if not the tradition itself. It is clear that Ahronglong (or his fictional narrator) treasures these tales…they were the beginning of him finding his place, re-finding his tribe's place, in the world.

There are political points made – how could an indigenous writer rediscovering his heritage not be political? - but they are gently, compassionately, made. Often they are hidden in the simple statement of facts…like the fact that of all the photographs and reams of film that anthropologists have made down the decades, it has never occurred to anyone to take it and give it back…go back to where it was shot and say, sorry, we don't know who these people were in relation to you, but we do know they were in relation to you, so maybe you should have this, it is part of YOUR history. That does seem like such a small thing to do.

I want to give you a taste of the tales…but I also don't, because I want you to read the book, because I'm sure that like me you have never heard of the Paiwan or the Pingpu and I want you to discover them for yourself.

What I will do, though, is add a little cautionary note about the tone of the language. It is very modern. The words put into the mouths of the mountain folk when they speak an uncultivated form of Mandarin is best described as hillbilly – a word that the translator himself uses in a related context – it is rendered as backwoods American. It might work in the States, but it does sound a little odd to the English ear. That said: I totally understand why. To quote the translator (not something we usually do, but there are times when I think it matters) Sakinu translates the call of his Paiwan ancestors into terms that modern Mandarin readers can understand, and I've done my best to relay-translate that call into English. If we substitute American for English he's probably succeeded.

And after all if Stephen Fry can re-tell the Greek myths as if they involved a bunch of over-bearing parents and stroppy teenagers (and be brilliant in the process) why shouldn't a Paiwan reclaiming his heritage use similar linguistic devices to get the point across?

It is a pleasurable read and an informative one. If you have any reason to be heading to Taiwan, please read this before you go. And if you're not….read it anyway, it won't take long and your understanding of the rich cultures of the world will be enriched for doing so.

My personal thanks to thebookbag for directly offering this one to me, knowing me as they do!

If you're interested in some of the cultures we're in danger of losing, I can also recommend another favourite of mine The Cave of the Yellow Dog by Byambasuren Davaa

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