In the Revisiting Corus series, I’ve been revisiting all of Tamora Pierce’s stories set in the Tortall universe. Today, I’ll be talking about the short story “Nawat,” which follows up the Trickster duet.
Note: I will be taking a break from this series over the Christmas/New Year’s break. The first post on the Provost’s Dog series will be debuting on January 12th.
From a crow point of view, to childbirth, to disability, Tamora Pierce is tackling a lot of subjects in this short story that we haven’t seen her tackle before.
The story opens not too long after the events of Trickster’s Queen, with Aly giving birth to their first child. Or children, as it turns out, because Aly ends up giving birth to triplets–Ochobai, Junim, and Ulasu. Nawat, their father and focus of the story, is dismayed to find his wife has given birth to human children, rather than eggs, and his life is further overturned as the crows of Rajmuat begin to find Nawat, and the other crows who have chosen to take human shape and fight for Queen Dove, face being outcast for becoming too human. With three human children and a human mate, and human feelings, Nawat must decide if it’s worth doing what he must to stay a true crow or whether being outcast, and human, is worth it.
This is a story that takes its time to unravel, perhaps understandable since it’s more like a novella in terms of size; it sprawls over 70 pages in the edition of Tortall and Other Lands that I checked out from the library. If this were set in another universe, I would say that it sprawls way too much, and needed to be severely edited down; as a standalone, it’s a bit bloated and awkward. But this makes sense as an update on Aly and Nawat’s life; while a standalone story would need to cut to the chase more, since we are Aly and Nawat fans, following each step of childbirth and raising three little babies has a lot more personal investment. It also delayed the point where we get to Nawat’s central struggle in the story, which is perhaps all for the better, because his struggle is…a lot.
As with all her short stories, I don’t want to be too explicit about the plot, but this short story is actively uncomfortable to read. It centers around disability–specifically the crow outlook on disability, which boils down to “kill them when they’re babies.” This story almost seems so uncomfortable to compensate for the fact that there are few to none disabled characters in Pierce’s other Tortall works; she’s making up for it with a vengeance by showing off, warts and all, her fantasy medieval world’s take on disabled children. Nawat is a crow by birth, and so his opinion on events gets way, way worse before it gets better.
I’m kind of up in the air as whether this story tackles physical disability well. It certainly acknowledges it, and the story ends on a nice note. But again, this story is deeply uncomfortable before it gets better, so it doesn’t really seem like a story meant for the disabled audience. It seems more aimed at interrogating the ideas abled people have about disability, and introducing to people the idea that the Tortall universe isn’t just a magic wonderland where every disability is fixed with the wave of a mage’s hand. That’s fine and dandy, and a little bit necessary, but maybe Pierce should have written a story about disability for disabled people before she wrote this one.
It also presents an fairly limited view, only expressing what it’s like for the physically disabled in the Copper Isles; it’d be nice to see a story with a broader scope, or one where the main character is the one disabled. Even Tamora Pierce’s Circle series, whose main characters are a bit more diverse than we find in Tortall, doesn’t really stray into this arena, so it feels weird that she went this far without some baby steps.
Her story is doing something I’ve decided to call difference tourism. When a relative takes a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Costa Rica, or a mission trip to India, they come back waving photos and new opinions, talking about how the people and culture are beautiful and perfect and poor and noble. This sort of thing is all well and good, but the sardonic among us will give the side-eye and think, “well, those people weren’t there to be in your vacation photos or to teach you a lesson. They were there to live, and you’re treating them like they’re part of your personal journey.” Similarly, sometimes novels, written by well-intentioned people, will tackle a thorny subject. They may be as read up as they can be on the issue, but if they’re not disabled or black or transgender, they can have a tendency to dredge the worst lows and the highest highs of that human experience out for others to see. And when you’re a member of that minority, or sensitive to it, this can seem a bit…out of place. Condescending, even though it was never meant to be. Tamora Pierce isn’t as blind to common sense as the author of For Such a Time, the romance a Nazi commander teaching a Jewish woman about loving Jesus, but she’s definitely an outsider addressing an issue for the first time in a way that doesn’t sit quite right. She may barely ping on the radar, but she still pings.
For a Tamora Pierce completionist, this is an interesting story to read, and to mull over. I’m glad that it exists, at the same time that I wish it felt more streamlined than it does. I don’t necessarily feel that it shouldn’t have made me uncomfortable, but I think it might have benefited from being more comfortable for those with disabilities to read–or being put off until another story that fits the bill were entered into the Tortallan canon. I don’t regret reading this, but it’s certainly not for the faint of heart, and it’s not even for every Tortall fan.
Do you have any thoughts about this short story? Share them in the comments or on Twitter!