War and Pieces
Kevin Powers’ debut novel, The Yellow Birds, looks like a war novel, but it is really a novel about pieces, about the massive rents in identity caused by war, and the difficult work of repairing them.
Powers’ novel, much of which is based on his own experience as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, is one of two selections for the 2013 Mayor’s Book Club, which kicks off today with a reading by Powers at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center at 7pm. Powers will also participate in an open conversation with community members about the book at 11:30am at the Austin History Center.
After over a decade at war, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that veterans and their families have produced some of the best fiction of recent years. The Mayor’s Book Club has paid homage to this trend before; in 2011, Siobhan Fallon, author of the Fort-Hood-based stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone, shared a stage with Tim O’Brien, whose Vietnam novel The Things They Carried is one of the most revered literary statements on war ever made. The other 2013 selection, the National Book Award-winning novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, also involves the lives of returning soldiers.
Austin Public Library Friends Foundation director Tim Staley, who was on the selection committee for the book club, says the books were chosen for their eloquent, accessible, and thought-provoking stories: “These are topics that are relevant to the community and to the country at large. We’re not trying to shape the debate itself. We’re just trying to facilitate a discussion.”
There are as many ways to write a war novel as there are to suffer through a war. In The Yellow Birds, Bartle, the main character, makes a rash promise before he ships out, and pays a terrible emotional price when he is unable to keep it. Loss of identity is a recurring theme throughout the book: “You’re nothing, that’s the secret: a uniform in a sea of numbers, a number in a sea of dust.” Once home, Bartle begins the patchwork process of integrating memories that seem at once to be defining moments in his life and also completely dissociated from it, and the book’s chapters accordingly skip around in time, immersing the reader in Bartle’s divided self.
Powers is also a poet (his first collection of poems will be released in 2014), and it’s easy to be lulled by melancholic passages like this one: “[A] group of boys can become a calculus for what will go ungrieved, the shoulders slumping in the seats of a chartered plane, the empty seats between them, how if God had looked on us during that flight back home we might have seemed like fabric ready to be thrown, in the surrendered blankness of our sleep, over the furniture of a thousand empty houses.” However, the book’s lyricism never romanticizes war, only amplifies its inherent surrealism.
Powers recently spoke with The Austin Chronicle about his reasons for entering the Army, the importance of history, and his process of turning trauma into literature.
Austin Chronicle: You were an MFA in poetry at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. How and when did you start writing fiction?
Kevin Powers: I've always written both. I started writing when I was a teenager, 12 or 13. I probably first started with poetry, but I've written both since of them since I was a kid.
AC: What kind of poetry does a 12-year-old boy in Richmond, Virginia, write?
KP: Bad? I don't know. At the time, I accidentally stumbled across Dylan Thomas, so I suppose a 12-year-old, Virginian, bad copy of Dylan Thomas.
AC: Did you consider not going into the Army?
KP: It was a really big decision, and I felt like I was using all of my 17-year-old capacities by choice. I guess it was just kind of a confluence of where I grew up and the fact that people in my family had served in the military. I don't come from a career military family or anything, but it sort of seemed like that was something that people did. I was not a good student in high school. I was a daydreamer; I didn't get good grades. So the prospect of immediately going to college didn't seem all that likely. So I don't know, I guess it seemed like the best decision available to me at the time. This was all before 9/11, and I sort of knew what was possible, but I didn't know exactly what I was getting myself into.
AC: What was appealing about the Army?
KP: I guess for me there was something about the idea of the kind of camaraderie – which is true, that's a real thing, there is a kind of this bond that I had never experienced. I wasn't a sports kid or an athlete, so I never really had much of that kind of interaction with other guys, so that was really something. I loved the outdoors, so in my mind it was an opportunity to spend a lot of time outdoors. I thought maybe I would get to see some interesting things. Not in the way that it turned out that I did, but … and then [on a] practical level I felt like, this is a real exchange. If I serve my country, then I'll have opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise. I guess I was an idealistic kid, and I felt like, "This is good, I'm going to spend a few years in the service of my country." That idea really appealed to me.
AC: I teach 17-year-olds, and reading your book, it hit really hard how young they are.
KP: It's crazy how young a 17-year-old is. It's insane.
AC: Was there anything traumatic about writing about that experience for you?
KP: I feel like for me to get to a place where I could deal with it as a piece of writing, I had to get to a place where I was on relatively stable ground with my own personal experience. But yeah, the process of bringing those memories back and trying to sort through them – that process made its way into the book as a thread of the book. How do we put those stories together, how do we make sense of our life? There were definitely moments where I would look up from my desk and think, "I'd really rather be doing something else right now." It's probably more true to say that I had to get right with my own experience before I could put it on the page the way I wanted to.
AC: How did you get right with your experience?
KP: Time is an important factor. But I was very lucky, I had family and friends who cared about me and who encouraged me to be open about the stuff that was on my mind, and in fact, in some cases, kind of demanded it. I had people who were close enough to me that could see what was happening, and they were like: "This is not OK, man. It's not OK for you to let this stuff eat you up." I had people who were concerned with what was going on with me and didn't let me retreat into my own bullshit.
AC: The war parts of the book are visceral and gripping and upsetting, but the parts where he's home are equally so.
KP: I tried to make it so that people would recognize that that was as dangerous, even if it was a different kind of danger.
AC: When you’re not writing about war, what are you writing about?
KP: I've got a book of poetry that will be out next year, and while some of it does deal with the war, a lot of it doesn't. I'm interested in history, particularly in the history of where I grew up. A lot of the poems in the book reflect on the way that the sins of the past affect the present. I'm very early in the process of taking notes and sketching stuff out for another novel, and that's going to be in the same sort of track. I'm going to look at the history of where I grew up. I guess, as a person who's had the experiences I've had, I'm concerned with issues of violence and justice, where do they overlap, and where do we get it completely wrong.
AC: How did growing up in the South affect your writing?
KP: It was really interesting, my parents are both from New England, and I was born in Richmond. I don’t know if I'm naturally more inclined to observe than participate, but I always felt kind of like I was watching something that I wasn't necessarily a part of. A lot of my friends in school, they had relatives who'd been buried in the same county since 16-whatever. And I was fascinated by that, but it wasn't something that I felt a part of. I always felt that I was observing this really interesting part of our country, but sort of from one level of remove.
AC: The passages that take place overseas are very lyrical and beautiful, the way the landscape is described – it’s not what we're used to, necessarily, in a war novel. Is that how it felt to you at the time?
KP: Of course when you're young and you haven’t had much exposure to the outside world, this impression of the exotic nature of it is pretty palpable. I hoped that there would be some tension between this naive way of looking at what's happening, but also have it coupled with the reality of it, with the unadorned quality of the things that are going on, the actual violence and the terrible situations that the characters and the people who are in this place are forced to live in. I hoped there would be some kind of tension between the naive way of looking at things, and the way the narrator is trying to process all this and integrate it into the way he matures. Setting out, the situation that Bartle’s in, he has this kind of extraordinary amount of life experience compressed into such a short time, but the mechanism that he has for dealing with it all and processing it all is locked into the actual very young person that he is.
AC: Did you choose the name Bartle to evoke "Bartleby the Scrivener" [the Herman Melville story]?
KP: That’s where I got the name, but I wasn't necessarily trying to put a stake in the ground with that or anything. I was like, what am I going to call this guy? That's always been a really important character to me. When I was in high school, my English teacher used to always say that I reminded her of Bartleby because my answer to everything was basically, “Yeah, I'd prefer not to.” My only intent was to find a name for the character that made sense with the way he looks at the world, but I wasn't trying to encode anything.
AC: The book was chosen for the Mayor’s Book Club, to be read by the city of Austin. What do you think the book has to say to a community like this?
KP: All I ever hope for anybody who reads it is they’ll think of a soldier, rather than as being this kind of uniform among a number of uniforms, as an individual human being that has the same feelings that anybody has. I guess really I was hoping to show that while soldiers obviously do have extraordinary experiences, the way that it affects their lives – they don’t have a monopoly on suffering or hardship. The divisions that people feel, this idea that you can't understand what another human being has experienced, I think that's not true. I think that if somebody is open to looking at, even if it's through an imaginative work, like a novel or poetry or a movie or whatever, that we can cross these divides that seem really impermeable.
Find out more about the Mayor's Book Club on the Austin Public Library website.