A Truku writer on his relationship with his tribe’s traditional craft
May 31, 2023
This essay is part of Transpacific Literary Project’s monthly column.
心裡直覺一個畫面，眼睛睜開剎那，看到Rudan從木瓜溪翻越幾個山頭來到支亞干部落。他們原來的部落叫做Qutuw Pais（敵人的頭顱），靠著征討敵人的領地得名，現在他們繼續往南邊的方向前進，每一個勇猛的獵人身著Payi織做的 Lukus（衣服），Lukus上面一個個侵略的眼睛……我打開螢幕中的Excel，調整方格尺寸試圖爬格子，但Payi們不需要紙筆構圖，更不可能用手操控滑鼠記錄心中圖譜，一種極度矛盾爬滿皮膚。
Tminum，T-e、M-i、Nu-m，轉換成漢語是織布，喜歡念在嘴裡三個音節的感受，重音放在倒數第二個音節的mi，我問Payi你會織布嗎？Payi 笑著看我：「Kla ku bi tminum o!」（我很會織布喔！）
我們跟著Payi到苧麻田，她說苧麻叫Nuqih，好用的苧麻葉片翻過來雪白色，長得很高很直，叫做Nuqih balay（真的苧麻），不好的苧麻葉片翻過來青色，長得也比較矮小，叫做Nuqih buyu（野苧麻）。
我內心小劇場持續膨脹，竊笑這種為我族獨尊的虛榮感。連續幾天Payi帶我們去葉、去皮、取纖維、浸泡、敲打、晾乾，每一個讓Nuqih接近成為Waray（線）的身體動作辛苦又費時，很長的時間裡面大家安靜做，Payi不斷稱讚說：「Balay bi laqi Truku o!」（真的是太魯閣族的孩子），汗流滿全身也感覺滿足。但有個疑問我不敢開口，怕繼續往深處揭開這個重大的祕密，就永遠被排除，Tminum會用力把我舉起往白石山下扔。
「Payi, Yaku ka snaw o, duwa tminum huwa?」（我是男人，我可以織布嗎？）
那麼多件不同的毛衣，她怎麼挑上這個顏色？她的身體坐在Ubung（織布機）前想的是什麼？她有覺得自己將要完成的這件棉被和過去的傳統不一樣，Utux（祖靈）會接納她嗎？還是Utux也會跟媽媽一樣用可怕的語氣說：「你沒辦法走過 Hakaw Utux（靈橋）！」
「你不能碰Ubung喔！」一個學習編織好一段時間的部落姊姊對我說，她的口氣和Bubu說我不能進入應許之地很接近，我說為什麼？她說這是Gaya1Gaya 是一組複雜的詞, 簡單地來說是規範也是禁忌.，男人就是不能碰女生的織布機。
“Tminum Yaku‧編織‧我 (Tminum Yaku • Weaving • Me)” received first place in the essay category of the Taiwan Indigenous Peoples Literature Award in 2015 and was first published in the collected works of awarded pieces that same year. The essay is included in Apyang Imiq’s book of essays, Growing Up in a Tree Hollow and reprinted with permission from the author.
Tminum Yaku • Weaving • Me
I turn to my side and put my hand on his chest, slowly, lightly, not wanting to wake him, but wanting him to feel the warmth of my palm against the skin of his chest. Feathers fall softly within the blanket. My chin against his thick and sturdy shoulder, I listen intently to the sound of his breathing, smooth and rhythmic, like the sounds of insects outside the window. Wind from the mountains blows into the room, turning the ceiling fan above my head, around and around, and I spin along with it, looking at the piece of weaving on the desk, in the incomplete, watchful darkness, feeling complete.
First, I think of vertical and horizontal Waray (threads) in an intersecting grid, gray-and-white warp and weft, ramie plant fibers soaked in charcoal dye, the pale gray a simple background for the weft threads for the Dowriq (eyes: diamond pattern). In this, the Payis3Truku, grandmother/female elder have a lot of freedom to choose all manner of bright colors—neon green, bright bloodred, the red of magenta lips…
An intuited image in my mind, I open my eyes and see Rudan4Truku, original ancestors emerging from Papaya Creek, climbing over several mountains to arrive here in Ciyakang tribal village. Their original tribe was called Qutuw Pais (skull of the enemy), who came to fame by conquering enemy territory. Now they continue to advance southward, every brave hunter wearing Lukus (clothing) woven by the Payis, the Lukus decorated with many aggressive-looking eyes…
I open an Excel sheet on my computer, adjusting the size of the square cells, trying to climb the grid, but the Payis never need pen or paper to draft designs, much less a computer mouse to record the atlas of designs they are conjuring. A kind of extreme ambivalence crawls over my skin.
“See… I can get behind this one!” Watan squinted his eyes into a thin line, looking out the very corner of his eyes.
My laughter tore from my open mouth, and I returned in a high pitch, “Right? He’s so good-looking! And he’s so good at doing it, I’m so tired!”
“Your legs can spread apart really wide—no wonder you’ve been walking strange! I can cover for you!”
I pushed his head and told him to go away.
When I shared photos of my boyfriend with Watan, he started, as usual, with comments about his face, his physique, and his technique, then rationally dissected whether I had a future with this man. We have an SOP for this kind of passionate discussion about men, going down our internal checklist—check mark for being Indigenous, check mark for having a steady income, X for being the only son in the family, check mark for easily integrating into Indigenous social circles, big check mark for a love of Indigenous culture. During this assessment of my boyfriend, he came away with seven to eight beautiful checks.
Tminum—T-e, M-I, Nu-m—translates into Chinese as to weave. I like the way the three syllables feel in my mouth, placing the emphasis on the second syllable, mi.
I asked a Payi, “Do you know how to weave?”
She laughed and looked at me, “Kla ku bi tminum o! (I love to weave!)”
I noted the elongated and slightly upturned mi, like the stolen joy of sneaking in candy from the kitchen cabinet right before bedtime when I was little or like uncovering an intimate secret. The only word in the world to describe Truku weaving is Tminum. The Chinese equivalent isn’t right, and neither is the English weaving. Tminum is the only word that stands still on the holy mountain of White Rock5According to legend, the Truku people were born from the large stone pillars on White Rock Mountain of the Central Mountain Range in Taiwan.
Once, we followed a Payi to the ramie plant fields. She said ramie is called Nuqih. Ramie leaves that are good to use for weaving are snow-white on the underside and stand very tall and very straight and are called Nuqih balay (true ramie). Ramie leaves that are no good are green on the underside and shorter in stature; they are called Nuqih buyu (wild ramie).
My heart continued to swell, laughing in my sleeve at the honor bestowed exclusively upon my tribe. Over many days, the Payi led us in the practice of discarding leaves, peeling off the skin, extracting the fibers, soaking, threshing, drying. Every physical action that brings Nuqih closer to becoming Waray is challenging and time-consuming. We all worked in silence over long periods of time, with Payi continuously complimenting, “Balay bi laqi Truku o! (You truly are children of Truku!),” the deep satisfaction of my body drenched with sweat. But I had a question I was afraid to ask, afraid that if I continued to unravel this heavy secret, I would forever be expelled and Tminum would throw me down White Rock Mountain.
“Payi, Yaku ka snaw o, duwa timinum huwa? (I’m a man—may I weave?)”
Bubu6Truku, mother and Tama7Truku, father know that I like men. At first, Bubu shrieked hysterically, I won’t allow this, her voice terrifying and distant. Subconsciously, I realized it wasn’t that she wouldn’t allow it, it’s that maybe the auntie next door would hear us through the corrugated iron wall of my haphazardly added second-floor room—so that tomorrow, and so many tomorrows afterward, the entire tribe would know that Tama’s son is Hagay (here, Chinese is again causing translation trouble: gay, effeminate, or worse, motherfucker). Maybe they might even find out about the checklist that Watan and I use and scold us that we shouldn’t rate face and body first, that obviously, having a steady income is the most important factor…
Bubu started to cry, and Tama crossed his arms across his chest and quietly sat to the side. I was afraid to lift my head to meet his eyes. Even though he went into the mountains with Baki (Grandpa) once when he was twelve to hunt, I refused to believe that he used the gun to shoot at the sambar deer that charged at him. I believed that he killed the deer with his cold eyes.
“The Bible doesn’t allow this. You won’t be able to enter the promised land with us,” said Bubu. My soul turned pale on that blazing hot summer afternoon, as if these Chinese characters piled one atop another were sealing a mountain cave with me stuck inside, while Bubu and Tama filled the cave with holy water, drowning me inside, like the little chicks in our backyard chicken coops, dead in the mud after a typhoon had swept through.
I cried in the dark of night, caressing the Qabang (a blanket made from woven cloth) that my Payi, my great grandmother, had left for me. This Qabang had vibrant colors and was made of soft cotton threads from the era of U.S. aid, when the missionaries would dole out material donations, sending us home with sweaters. Payis didn’t know who should actually get to wear these sweaters, so they fiddled around excitedly and used their razor-sharp eyes to find the loose threads of the sweaters and unraveled them into threads upon threads of radiant colors, transforming them into the most valuable Waray! Truku villages began to produce woven textiles that had different colors from before. To borrow a modern phrase from Chinese, “It was quite a display of creativity!”
My Payi used the sweaters donated by the Ah-mei-li-jia8Phonetic translation of America (a reference to any pale-skinned, blonde-haired foreigner) missionaries and transformed them into this soft blanket. Bubu kept it in the innermost corners of the cabinet, and when I found it, I jumped around excitedly like a macaque. The blanket made me miss my Payi and the limitless imagination of her weaving.
With so many different sweaters to choose from, how did she choose this color? When she sat in front of the Ubung (loom), what was she thinking? Did she sense that the blanket she was about to weave was different from the traditional blankets she’d woven before? Would Utux (our ancestral spirits) accept her? Or would Utux say angrily, as Bubu had, “You won’t be able to cross the Hakaw utux (spiritual bridge)!”
“You may not touch the Ubung!” an older tribal sister who was an experienced weaver told me. Her tone was not unlike the tone Bubu used when she said I would not be able to enter the promised land. I asked why not. She said it was Gaya9Gaya is a difficult term, but simply put, it refers to rules, as well as taboos, that men aren’t supposed to touch women’s looms.
But it’s so confusing. When a friend and I visited another tribal village and a Payi wanted to demonstrate Tminum, she said to us gently, “Come help me bring out my loom, my back hurts!” For a few seconds, I froze, thinking she was soliciting help from some of our female companions because this was a Truku Gaya. I knew that as a man, I was not allowed to touch her loom, so I should not bend over and help her bring it out. I was so anxious standing right next to the Ubung, yet I could not help the Payi move it.
The Payi put her hand on my shoulder as a signal, and my hands gingerly cradled the Ubung. Like an ant, I moved it a few steps, then placed it gently on the floor.
“I touched an Ubung, I touched an Ubung…” I was screaming inside.
“See… it’s so beautiful, you can get married now! But these Dowriq (diamond shapes) are placed too close together, feels like a curse!” Watan had taken the strap I finished weaving, studied its front and back.
Even though I didn’t always like his reckless attitude—the way he started any discussion by making fun of the other person—I knew that he truly accepted me and that I can be with Tminum. We will have a party on White Rock Mountain, bring out each woven Qabang, organize them by color according to our own aesthetics, place them on the green grass, and piece them into our imagined rainbow. Then we will sit on the Qabang and drink from goblets of Paolyta10Paolyta is a medicinal tonic made with traditional Chinese herbs (with 8 percent alcohol content) popular in Taiwan three-in-one—Paolyta, farm fresh milk, and Mr. Brown Coffee.
“Do you know the original meaning of Hagay?” an older tribal brother asked me and Watan. “Hagay refers to someone who has two kinds of spirits—both male and female spirits. In the past, Hagay often played the role of sorcerers and could communicate with Utux.”
Watan and I can be sorcerers, like the Payi in our village who can use witchcraft and cast spells. She moves the bamboo stick in her hands, and when it sticks to her hand and can’t be shaken off, she replies with an air of authority when someone comes asking for advice, “Who in your family has been unfaithful? Did you say something you shouldn’t have said when you were up in the mountains?”
Watan says, “If I am a sorcerer, I will be beautiful, because you will weave the traditional costume for me.”
I say, “I still don’t know how to use Ubung, because I can only touch the simple loom imported from New Zealand, and can’t use a real Ubung.”
Watan, “You’re a Hagay now!”
When I was little, before my Payi went up the mountain to plant sweet potatoes11When Truku refer to someone who has passed, we say that they have gone back up the mountain to plant sweet potatoes, she showed me an article of clothing that her mother had woven. On the bright plain of the gray-white textile were multiple dazzling Dowriq, each of them a different shape. Payi said she didn’t know the meaning behind these symbols, only that her mother would sit in front of the Ubung before the sun rose, and that she would often be awakened by the dong, dong of the loom shaft hitting against the frame. She used to think the noise was so loud and bothersome, but now it has become an important part of her memory of her mother. Her mother made everything that she and her siblings wore, and left many Qabang for her to use as her dowry.
Payi noted the excitement in my eyes and asked if I wanted to wear it. I nodded and said yes. The sleeves went into my right arm and then the left, the paneled skirt was tied around my waist and then wrapped by a belt made from vibrant threads. The skirt went past my knees, and when I walked, I felt awkward. Payi laughed and said it looked great. My knotted legs slowly made their way to the doorway, where Tama and Bubu were just coming in from outside. The sun blanketed my face so that I could not make out their expressions—I only remember Payi’s laughter and the feeling of the clothing against my skin.
One day, I will really touch an Ubung and converse with her, tell her that I am Hagay, introduce her to my man. “Shall we Tminum something for him together?”