Kevin Powers at Powell’s
I’m fascinated by the notion of a war writer. Soldiering and writing are two activities that appear to be diametrically opposed. How can the horror of war be captured in simple words or stories? How can a man who fires a bullet into another man’s heart also write from the heart about the environment that encourages such an action? An impossible feat it would seem. But, for as long as man has been going to war, he has been writing great fiction about it. Every war has its classics. WWI brought us Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead came out of WWII. Vietnam gave us The Things they Carried by Tim O’Brien, A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, and Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes.
And now, stories from the Iraq War have begun to trickle in. In 2012 alone we got three amazing novels: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, David Abrams’ Fobbit, and The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.
At Powers’ reading, he talked about his military service and writing The Yellow Birds. The story is of two soldiers who meet in basic training and form a bond. One promises to bring the other one home safely. They both do everything they can to protect each other during their tour in Iraq, but ultimately only one soldier returns. Author Philipp Meyer whose own brilliant book The Son was released last week says, “Compelling, brilliantly written, and heartbreakingly true, The Yellow Birds belongs in the same category as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.”
The audience asked some great questions. Here’s what Powers said:
Why did you write The Yellow Birds?
When I got back from my tour there [Iraq], got back home to Virginia, to a landscape that for some reason was no longer familiar to me, I was very often asked a variation on the same question by friends, family, and strangers who happened to find out I was a veteran. The question was “What was it like over there?”
It occurred to me that that wasn’t an information-based question. They weren’t asking for me to tell them about the things they were seeing on the television at night. It seems as if they were asking for answers that existed on a human scale…to be a human being amidst those terrible violent circumstances…what it felt like to witness and participate in extraordinary violence… and how is it possible to return to a life that makes any kind of sense after enduring something like that. When I thought about that question it also occurred to me that I wasn’t able to answer it in any way that was satisfying even to myself, and certainly not in any way that would be satisfying to anybody that hadn’t been there and had that experience first hand. Because I’ve always been somebody who’s used literature, poetry, and fiction, both as a reader and a writer, as a way to locate myself in the world, understand what it means to be a human being, and why that’s important, it seemed natural for me to turn again to poems and to what was in the very beginning a story that kept expanding as a way of trying to, if not answer, to try and clarify those answers in my own mind. I tried to do that to the best of my ability. The result of those efforts is The Yellow Birds.
The title comes from, I don’t know if it’s the most popular marching song in the US military, but it seems to be the most identifiable. It was the first one that I encountered when I went into basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri as a seventeen-year-old. I remember being shocked, surprised, amused…you all know how it goes, it’s basically:
A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My window sill
I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head.
It goes on in different but equally violent refrains. The thing that was most strange about this experience was that as shocking as it was when I first heard it, it became something that I loved. I embraced it. To me it signified a couple of things. One was the way that the military has perfected the art of turning people into soldiers. But also, there’s this strange and surreal relationship to violence, and that’s when it finally does occur to you just how strange, callous, and obscene it is when you’re coming out of that. One of the things that comes up quite a bit cuz I’ve been going around talking about the book, and people mention this a lot, is that we’re quite effective at turning people into soldiers but it seems we’re not quite as good at turning soldiers back into people. So it [the title] seemed like a way to introduce people to the kind of book it would be.
Did writing this book help you work through your feelings about it?
I think it did, particularly very early on. I started by writing poems almost immediately after I got back, but I didn’t start addressing the war in those poems until I’d been back six months or maybe a year. Then I had this pile of prose and I didn’t really know what it was, but it was so necessary to think about the experience I’d just gone through. Then when I looked at it I sort of consciously looked for the story in there because people were asking that question that I mentioned. I felt like if I could find a story in there, something that people, something that could operate in some sort of shared imaginary space, it might be useful to other people as well.
How have veterans reacted to your book?
The ones who’ve taken the time to get in touch with me have been pretty positive. I understand that there are guys who take issue with certain aspects of it who don’t bother to talk to me about it. But the guys who have gotten in touch with me, I think more than anything, have been appreciative that the story is starting to be told. I’m not the only one…Ben Fountain’s fantastic book Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, and David Abrams’ Fobbit. I think there will be more to come. I think the guys who get in touch with me are glad that the story’s being told from our perspective. I’ve also been really gratified to get letters from family and loved ones of veterans who’ve had difficulty communicating with the veteran in their life who said they’d gotten some slim understanding out of the book which really means a lot to me.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the very early stages of doing the foundation work for a novel, but a few months ago I finished a poetry manuscript. That will be out a year from now, next April. I’m excited about that. I was working on it over the winter and finished it up the beginning of this year.
Here you are with this amazing book and a life that you wouldn’t have had had you not gone to war. Is this more like you’re making lemonade out of lemons or I’m glad I had that experience?
Oh, we’re making lemonade! In all seriousness, there are parts of that experience I’m grateful for. I appreciate the fragility of life and the preciousness of life in a way that I never did before. Perhaps it’s just because I’m older now, I’ve matured some, I’ve experienced a lot in my life outside of the war, but I think for me it seems like I had a whole lifetime’s worth of experience compressed down to this one year. The result of that is I do feel like it changed me, but I’m sure there are other ways to arrive at those conclusions. Many people seem to be perfectly capable of appreciating the value of life without having to go through that. I’d be perfectly happy to be one of those people. But the fact of the matter is I made the decision that I made and I tried my best to be accountable in my own mind and in my own heart. One of the questions at the heart of the book is are you, I mean us, or whatever, are we the sum total of the things that we’ve done in the past or do we get to start over? I’m trying now to live a life that doesn’t involve violence except to think about it and talk about ways to look beyond it. Yeah, it’s one of those deals where I am who I am in part because of that. But also, we’re making lemonade.
Little, Brown – 2012