Hybrid Interview: Claire Oshetsky
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Claire Oshetsky and Cavar Sarah, who also essays about Oshetsky’s latest novel, Chouette. —CRAFT
Essay by Cavar Sarah •
I have never understood the fear of birds.
“Because they are so far from us,” I am told by well-meaning humans. “Because we lack ways to tell what they are feeling.”
I try to understand. I put my neurotypical glasses on. Observe their fearsome opacity.
Claire Oshetsky has birds in their bones. Author of The Book of Dog (2018, self-published as lark benobi) as well as Chouette (Ecco, 2021), Oshetsky challenges cishetero- and neuronormative ways of seeing the world with fabulist, interspecies play. Humans and nonhumans mingle and make love, and in the process map new ways of understanding overfamiliar sociopolitical challenges. In the case of The Book of Dog, a mysterious virus turning humans into canines explores the bewildering years of the Trump presidency. Their most recent novel, Chouette, follows a mother and daughter living and caring neuroqueerly in a world suffocated by neurotypical epistemological limitations.
In Chouette, Tiny, the new mother of an owl-baby sired by an owl-woman, takes up the task of mothering this hybrid child in a world hostile toward difference, a child who “needs a mother, or…needs to die.” Tiny is already an outsider, albeit one who tries ambivalently to fit into a social sphere dominated by cishetero– and neuronormative ideologies. Tiny occupies a boundary-space between her husband’s logic-bound family of “dog-people” and the fabulist “bird-people” who include her baby and her lover. In other words, Tiny is neuroqueer, which coiner Nick Walker describes both as a social identity and as a collection of practices “intended to undo and subvert one’s own cultural conditioning and one’s ingrained habits of neuronormative and heteronormative performance, with the aim of reclaiming one’s capacity to give more full expression to one’s uniquely weird potentials and inclinations.”
Tiny’s weirdness has long alienated her from the compliant “dog-people” (a far cry from the rebellious “bitches” within The Book of Dog) with whom she is expected to feel solidarity and even love. Instead, she struggles to understand them, questioning, even, their base in a shared reality. The wives of neighborhood men, for example, speak in “concrete word-bricks,” while Tiny is intimate with metaphor. “That way,” she notes, “no logic can trap me, no rule can bind me, and no fact can limit me or decide for me what’s possible.” This orientation, lived and linguistic, toward the impossible, the opaque, and the confounding rises in intensity and implication throughout her time raising Chouette and encountering her owl-lover.
If Tiny’s alienation from the dog-people is grounded in a lack of shared reality, then it is a shared counterreality that brings her into solidarity with her owls. Tiny’s interactions with her lover revolve around this point, with her lover reminding Tiny of the ways her husband has “clipped [her] wings,” using his doghood to circumscribe “the monster underneath.” Chouette’s growth inaugurates more acts of seeming monstrosity: during a routine sonogram appointment, Tiny intuits Chouette’s precocious distaste for medical equipment, feels the fetus inside her “[take] a piece of [Tiny’s] uterine wall into [her] beak…shaking [her] head back and forth ferociously” and demanding escape. This willful refusal of medical and educational authority crystalizes during Chouette’s childhood, wherein Tiny also increasingly traffics in the hitherto impossible. For her daughter’s sake, Tiny would move the world, now infected by the tantalizing “poison of mother-love.” Tiny’s increasing traffic with the impossible lends itself to a fierce solidarity with young Chouette, whose connection to Tiny is not simply one of birth but also of orientation toward alternative ways of living.
The idea of family is arguably the fulcrum of Chouette. While its restrictive, cishetero- and neuronormative forms pose a threat to neuroqueer solidarity, as well as young Chouette’s very existence, the bond between mother and child also offers a respite from the hostile dog-world outside. Unlike her encounters with the owl-lover, Tiny’s interactions with Chouette cannot only occur under the cover of night. Instead, the “impossible” enters into the light of day, demanding that Tiny learn a new language of care. Unlike Tiny, Chouette cannot and will not pass herself off as a dog: instead, she screeches, bites, and noshes openly on raw meat. She begs to hunt prey at night, riding with Tiny through the suburban darkness, slaughtering small birds with the help of Tiny’s axe. While Tiny’s owlself long lived inside, emerging in the darkness to entangle with the impossible, Chouette’s owlness is unmasked, her dissent loud and disruptive to school, Tiny’s marriage, and Tiny’s attempts to sit on the fence between owl and dog. Chouette’s effect on Tiny becomes perhaps most apparent after Tiny’s dog-father-in-law attempts to drown Chouette and the neuroqueer way of life she represents. After saving Chouette from drowning, Tiny looks upon the dog-family with fresh rancor, cheering when her daughter retaliates against her angry husband: “Good girl: You draw first blood, and then you piss on his trousers.”
A fierce, highly political maternal love turns Tiny from Chouette’s guardian to Chouette’s student, a child in the face of her intrinsic neuroqueer wisdom. Surrounded by accusation of capitulation to Chouette’s supposedly unreasonable demands, Tiny instead emerges as a hybrid motherdaughter. Oshetsky’s portmanteau “motherdaughtering,” used alongside numerous others throughout the text, can be understood in the context of Tiny’s and Chouette’s role reversal. While Tiny has physically gestated and birthed Chouette, Chouette is equally Tiny’s mother, her teacher in new ways of loving. In All About Love: New Visions, late scholar and visionary bell hooks writes: “The choice to love is a choice to connect—to find ourselves in the other.” As Chouette grows, Tiny grows with her, and in the process locates her birdself in Chouette’s owl-bodymind. Chouette is not a mere prop in Tiny’s development, nor a direct pathway to Tiny embracing her own neuroqueerness. Rather, in their bond as mother and daughter, as well as their nascent neuroqueer kinship, Tiny metamorphoses into the mother demanded of her: a mother capable of understanding Chouette’s opinions and declining the impulse to socialize her as if she were a dog-child. Motherhood, rather than being the reason for political inactivity, is instead the primary thrust of Tiny’s radicalization: she roots for Chouette’s raging expressions of opinion, adores her life of frightening oddness with an internal monologue like a love letter:
But here’s the crux of it, owl-baby. Your father wants to fix you, and I want us to love you as you are…I never let him know how much I root for you when you’re being yourself—even if what you’re doing is odd, or frightens people, or makes them look away. Your life is one of feces smeared with reckless joy on the walls every afternoon after you wake up from your nap. Your life is one of constant swallowings of things-not-food, and trips to the emergency room to get loose change and safety pins removed from your gut; a life of people staring at you, disgusted, only you don’t care about their feelings, because you are laughing….
Tiny and Chouette have cocreated, with love, new familial worlds, new forms of kinship grounded in but expansive beyond the human, biological, and nuclear family. We stumble together into space where bird-people might fly, flee, and devour with abandon. Rarely fully successful and perpetually approximate, Tiny’s form of mothering is a halting query into alternative worlds and family structures. This reality is not free of harm or sorrow, but is a space in which contemporary demands of cure-qua-compliance for neuroqueer owls need not exist: limits on the thinkable do not exist, either. More than simply a motherdaughter bond, Chouette’s and Tiny’s love is neuroqueer worldmaking praxis, with Tiny alchemizing myth and metaphor into daughter, and Chouette acting as doula for Tiny’s entrance into elsewhere, otherwise. Together, they exit a story tellable in dog-words, with Chouette flying into a bewildering sky, and Tiny, mother-lesson completed, traveling into the fresh unknown.
I regard my interview below with Oshetsky as an act of love, happenstance, and generative disagreement. We have been in conversation over the course of several months, first via our Goodreads accounts (I had been friends with them as “lark benobi” on the platform for several years, unaware of their given name and then-forthcoming book) and later through email. While we/our work might both be described by the label “neuroqueer,” Oshetsky and I differ widely in lived experience and approach to queer, neurodivergent life: I am an autistic PhD student, steeped in queer, trans, and disability studies analytical frameworks; Oshetsky is the autistic parent of an autistic daughter whose storytelling practices exist outside the ivory tower. I have drawn from texts both academic and nonacademic to indicate the ways that neuroqueer scholarship shifts between registers: we are profoundly cerebral and profoundly affective at once. Our conversation is emblematic of the challenging, world-crossing possibilities Oshetsky’s novel carries within itself. I would like to build a house in this discordance.
Cavar Sarah: As you know, I’m entering this interview as a PhD student focusing on disability studies, who also happens to be queer, trans, and autistic. With that in mind, I’d like to open the interview by asking about your relationship to the terms “bodymind” and “neuroqueer.” Margaret Price uses the term “bodymind” to frustrate the ways that, in common parlance, “body and mind tend to be treated as rhetorically distinct.” “Neuroqueer” was coined by Nick Walker, M. Remi Yergeau, and Athena Lynn Michaels-Dillon, and relates to the queering, frustrating, and destabilizing of both neuro- and heteronormativity.
Were these ideas on your mind as you wrote Chouette? I’m thinking particularly about the blur between Chouette’s owl-body and owl-mind, or the entanglement of Tiny with her owl-lover and the child they produced.
Claire Oshetsky: Cavar, in trying to answer this question, I’m coming smack up against the realization that writing fiction and writing literary criticism are different things. I had nothing in mind when I began this book except to write the truth about what it was like to be the mother of my daughter. The process of writing the book was a quest for truth-telling. I didn’t think about my opinions or my beliefs, or even label what I was writing about as queer or autistic or any other thing. Now that I have the book in hand I can see it’s very autistic, very queer. But I didn’t set out to write a queer autistic book. In fact, I remember arguing with my editors about whether this was a book about autism or queerness and kind of pushing back on that—I resisted such definitive labels. The frame of how I now relate to the story I wrote came from readers and reviewers, not from me. I delight when I see a reviewer say definitively: “oh, this is about what it’s like to raise a queer child,” or “oh, this book is totally about motherhood, generally,” or “this book is about raising an autistic child,” or “this book is a feminist book,” or “this book is hilarious,” or “this book is dark and disturbing.” Great! But none of it was intentional. I didn’t start with a thesis. I just wrote a story.
CS: Perhaps the most painful aspect of Chouette as a story was seeing the heartbreakingly realistic scenes of abuse against the titular owl-baby, both by medical professionals and by a father who refuses even to learn her name. Here, becoming human in the ableist, cisheteronormative sense is a violent and futile process, as Chouette is, was, and always will be an owl-baby. What is the idea of “humanity” doing in the book? What draws you to the nonhuman, and what can we learn in embracing it?
CO: I respect your interpretation of the novel as completely valid, but I need to confess that I wrote my protagonist-mother, Tiny, to be an ambivalent character, where it’s up to the reader to decide whether she is doing the right thing for her child or not. It’s possible to read the entire book and come to the end of it and conclude that Tiny is the abuser, not her husband. People come with their own set of assumptions to the novel. I deliberately wrote the novel to challenge readers’ assumptions, but also, to allow them to draw their own conclusions. As a mother who made many grave mistakes myself, and who had many doubts along the way about how to help my children grow up to be their best selves, it was important for me to keep that ambivalence, and to acknowledge that my character, Tiny, is “winging it,” if I may say that. Although she comes from a place of love, she’s never really sure if she is doing the right thing. So, take the scene where Tiny is inspired to name the owl-baby Chouette. Tiny reports hearing an aria from the opera Werther, and it inspires her to name her baby “Chouette” (French for owl). She gets angry at the way everyone immediately calls her baby Charlotte instead. Only: the name of the character who sings that aria is “Charlotte.” So did Tiny mishear? Did she misname her baby, and mistakenly label Chouette in the beginning as an “owl-baby?” Is her whole conception of the baby wrong? My message is buried deeply in the text and it’s really just there for me, to remind me that I didn’t know what I was doing as a mother, but it’s there. Only my copyeditor has caught this contradiction in the naming scene, and she has a PhD in music, I believe. So why am I putting these ambivalences in the text? There was no other way of telling this story that felt truthful. Autistic moms of autistic children don’t automatically come with huge stores of confidence that letting their children be themselves is the best thing, or that therapies like ABA are harmful. They’re surrounded by a sea of neurotypical advisors who really do seem to know best. When your child is in crisis, and you don’t know how to help them, you reach for help from the people who are most confident in their ability to help you. Tiny over and over again goes along with her husband and allows him to take her child to therapists and doctors, and it’s only after she sees it isn’t working and is indeed harming Chouette that she stops them…only to be persuaded next time that this therapy will help her child lead a better life.
I gave Tiny boundless love and boundless optimism, and these are characteristics that draw readers to her, but Tiny is also filled with terrible doubts about how she’s raising her child. And she has no confidence that she’s doing the right thing at any given moment. She makes terrible mistakes. Even if she makes them out of love, these mistakes harm her child. In these ways, she’s set in contrast with her husband. Her husband has boundless confidence that he knows how to “cure” the owl-baby and to give her a better life.
CS: There’s also the related idea that some “true” (neurotypical) version of Chouette was lost and to be retrieved through “early intervention.” Were you writing with the myth of the child “lost” to autism, or perhaps the earlier myth of the changeling child, in mind?
CO: The literary grandma of my novel is The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing. Lessing left her two older children to be raised by their father, so she could pursue a life of writing, but she took along her youngest, disabled child, Peter, and she lived with Peter her entire life. The Fifth Child explicitly draws on the myth of a changeling child. Lessing spoke at length about this inspiration in taped author interviews that are available on YouTube. She doesn’t mention Peter at all as an inspiration but I think her experience as his mother must have influenced her.
CS: Speaking of influence, I noticed that Tiny is, herself, also a kind of shapeshifter. She moves between dog-worlds and bird-worlds. Of course, we conclude with an opening toward what looks to be a more-than-human multiverse in which Tiny and Chouette might take part. Is this reflective of your own lived experience, as a person, a writer, or both?
CO: Yes, I think so, but none of these ideas were in my mind as I wrote the story. It’s more like this: I am who I am, and who I am was reflected in the story, and I can see that now that I’ve written it.
CS: You tap into a real sense of solidarity and kinship in this book. For example, Tiny devours an assortment of frozen chicken livers, while a not-yet-born Chouette encourages, “Eat, pretty mother, and build your nest for me!” Tiny affirms, “There’s no turning back. I’m as bound to this baby as I am to my own beating heart.” Chouette is not just a new owl-person in Tiny’s life, but a new and “knew” part of her self. Chouette, in a manner of speaking, “raises” Tiny, inasmuch as she raises her to consciousness. What does Chouette (both the character, and, perhaps, the book itself) make possible?
CO: I agree that Chouette inspires Tiny to be more herself, but I think Tiny doesn’t listen or accept the message fully. Tiny continues to choose the dog-world. She continues to misunderstand her own child, even if it’s true that she understands her child more than any other person in the world.
For instance: Chouette is intersex. The doctor immediately genders the child as “a girl” and Tiny accepts it and never questions it. In a later scene, after Chouette gains speech skills, her father tries to get Chouette to say “You are a girl,” and Chouette refuses. In an early draft, Chouette’s genderqueer nature was more of an overt theme, where Chouette turns to her mother and says their/his/her true name is “Chico.” I decided this was too obvious a signal toward polemical preachy writing in what I wanted to remain an ambivalent fiction. So I took this out, and allowed Tiny to remain oblivious to the end to her child’s true gender—Tiny accepts and never questions that Chouette is a girl. Gender is beyond her knowledge as a mother. Similarly, Tiny is also bound up in music that is in the classical/Western tradition and mostly cites men as her inspirations in music. She doesn’t appreciate Chouette’s notion of music.
These are sublimated themes, but they were in my mind because I was thinking of Tiny as a less-than-perfect mother who didn’t really understand her own child as well as she thought she did. Aren’t all mothers similarly limited? It’s up to the child to grow up and to bust through the limitations their parents place on them, and Chouette does it in a very literal way, growing up and busting out of the bus and flying away, leaving her mother behind.
CS: I also noticed a distinct orientation toward interdependent ways of living in Chouette, a kind of countercare against the penal form of “care” offered by medicine. How did you navigate the space between love and violence in Chouette as a character and as a novel?
CO: I may have answered some of this already, above. The violence seemed to fit the nature of this child: if Chouette is a predator then the violent behavior is in line, and is natural, however scary it seems to the dog-people.
CS: Lastly, in our exchange on Goodreads, you made this comment about the reception of Chouette:
The response to the novel has been fairly positive but no matter what people think of it they usually say it’s “weird.” or “strange,” or “bizarre.” etc etc etc. I’ve been feeling as disoriented as I did junior high school when everyone called me those things all the time. I did -not- set out to write a weird strange book—I set out to say with as much clarity as possible what it was like to raise my girl. Yesterday I even got my yearbook out of the garage to check if it was really true that everyone wrote “you’re weird” in it and yes they really did except for the ones that wrote “you’re wierd” or “you’re wired.” Your review reminded me: oh yeah, this is an autistic book! Of course people are going to say that! Thank you. I feel more grounded now.
What has reception been like since we last spoke, if any different? I recently finished Nightbitch, whose author you had a conversation with in November 2021. I actually found Nightbitch to be somewhat weirder—more deliberately alienating—than Chouette: while Yoder writes a mother’s escape from normative human reality, you approach reality as a thing to be transfigured and remapped. Such are the demands of an autistic bodymind! What is the link between the mothers/ways of mothering in Chouette and Nightbitch?
CO: Reviewers seem to agree there is a strangeness in my novel. It seems partly to do with the things that happen in the novel being left ambivalent and open to interpretation, and partly from just the idea of a human mother giving birth to an “owl-baby.” This second objection I don’t understand at all. Have these people not heard of Stuart Little? Or the Minotaur? Anyway. It’s interesting. I feel a kinship with Rachel Yoder because we both reached for metamorphosis as a way to describe motherhood. The way it changes you, isolates you, defines you, and in so many ways is outside of your control. The unexpectedness of motherhood. I didn’t feel prepared for that. I had the notion that I’d have these babies and they’d go to daycare in six weeks and I’d go on with my life. No one told me that to be a “working mother” you need to birth children who are happy to go along with your plan, and who fit into daycare centers and who know how to play nicely with the other children, and who then go on to love after-school soccer practices and so on, and who never never need you in a twenty-four-hours-a-day kind of way. I’ve learned you can’t count on that.
CLAIRE OSHETSKY is a novelist whose short fiction has appeared in numerous reviews and anthologies, and they have also written articles for Wired, Salon, and The New York Times. Chouette draws on their own experience with raising nonconforming children. Find Claire on Twitter @oshetsky.
CAVAR SARAH is a PhD student, writer, and critically mad transgender-about-town. They are editor in chief at Stone of Madness and swallow::tale literary presses, and their work is found or forthcoming in Bitch Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Electric Literature, The Offing, and elsewhere. Their latest chapbooks are Out of Mind & Into Body (Ethel Press, 2022) and bugbutter (Gap Riot Press, 2022). Cavar tweets @cavarsarah.