Chouette is a second person narrative account written by Tiny (the mother), a professional cellist, to her baby Chouette.
The author Claire Oshetsky describes it as a parable about motherhood, the way she/they experienced raising two non-conforming children. She uses magical realism to magnify and portray a surreal circumstance.
Tiny has always been an outsider and she knows her child will be different. She’s wary and unsure how to proceed, knowing it is going to take all she has, to raise her baby the way it will need to be nurtured. Impregnated by an owl, she gives birth to an owl-baby, Chouette.
One of the first things that is sacrificed is her cello playing quartet, and the time she previously spent playing. The instrument might have been sacrificed but music continues to be a part of their lives.
“As for you owl-baby, let’s lay out the facts. Your owlness is with you from the very beginning. It’s there when a first cell becomes two, four, eight. It’s there when you sleep too much, and crawl too late, and when you bite when you aren’t supposed to bite, and shriek when you aren’t supposed to shriek; and on the day that you are born – on the day when I first look down on your pinched-red, tiny-clawed, outraged little body lying naked and intubated in a box – I won’t have the slightest idea about who you are, or what I will become.
But there you will be, and you will be of me.”
Tiny describes to her daughter the story of her conception and arrival into the world and the challenges she has had, both living in a world where her husband, his family and much of the community frown upon this mother and child, and of the mother’s increasing loss of her own sense of self, due to the sacrifices made in order to nurture and allow the child to develop and grow safely.
Tiny sees her offspring as an owl-baby and shares how this magical conception and birth took place, while the husband continues to refer to her as Charlotte. Tiny is tuned into Chouette’s needs, but senses disapproval everywhere, and the more understanding she is of Chouette, the more she feels the external world closing in on her.
“I begin to understand what a gift I’ve been given, to have been chosen for this task. The truth overwhelms me, and humbles me. The birds are telling me that my life’s work, as your mother, will be to teach you how to be yourself – and to honour however much of the wild world you have in you, owl-baby – rather than mould you to be what I want you to be, or what your father wants you to be.”
The story shares these twin perspectives, of the way Tiny sees the world (described through the metaphor of an owl baby and everything she needs, how she behaves and the incongruency of that with the expectations of the existing world they live in) – and the perspective of the husband, who can only see things from the perspective of what he has been conditioned to believe is normal.
Thus a struggle arises between two ways of seeing, of being, one that requires natural behaviour to be modified, medicated, suppressed, so that the child will appear and behave in the family and society as “normal”, while the other allows for that natural “but judged and condemned” way of being to exist.
Therein lies the central conflict, whether to train a child to fit in with everyone else, a shadow of their former self, or allow them to feel more comfortable in their own skin by being themselves. Rather then compromise, the novel presents the two options as extremes, posing one against the other, mother against father.
Each reader is likely to have a different experience of reading the novel, depending on whether you read it as magical realism or a metaphor. Just as the husband and wife see things so very differently in their perspective and determination about how to raise this child, so too will a reader bring their own perspective, experience and varying degree of open-mindedness to the text.
Music, A Narrative Accompaniment
Throughout the novel there are references to different pieces of music, that resonate with the mood or feeling being experienced, or are used to calm a situation. The author’s daughter, a musician, contributed to this aspect of the novel.
“There’s a lot of music in the novel, and she was my primary consultant about music. And the other way she helped me was just reminiscing about what it was like for her to live through this shared experience of being a child that was deeply misunderstood and sometimes put in situations that were frightening, even in her school system or with therapists that we went with her to see.”
It is very much Tiny’s narrative and as such, there is little empathy towards the husband’s perspective, which challenges and discomforts the reader.
It is a dark, contemporary tale that couldn’t be more relevant than now, when so many mother’s are facing the same dilemma. Should I follow my own intuitive inclination, because I know this child, I love this child, and when I don’t compare this child to others, I see he/she/they are perfect the way are – or do I listen to what the other, the external world is saying, is judging, is condemning them to, despite reducing them to a shell of who they really are?
I found it an incredible, disturbing, yet resonant novel, so mind openly, imaginative in the creation of an owl-like creature to accentuate the reactions and responses non-conforming children invite without asking. The owl a prescient choice, auspicious.
The owl sees in the dark, is an observant listener, with its heightened powers of observation and intuition. In some traditions it possesses paranormal wisdom, regal silence and fierce intelligence. Just like those extraordinary children.
Essay, Refinery 29 – Gender: A Family Story by Claire Oshetsky
NPR Interview: A parable about motherhood, ‘Chouette‘ begins with a human birth to an owl baby – Danielle Kurzleban talks to Claire Oshetsky
Poets & Writers: Ten Questions for Claire Oshetsky
The Author, Claire Oshetsky
Claire Oshetsky is a novelist whose writing has appeared in Salon, Wired, and the New York Times. She lives with her family in California. Chouette is her debut novel.