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Iraq Veteran’s War Fiction Taps Personal Experience

November 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Kevin Powers served in the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. When he returned to the U.S. he turned initially to poetry to work through his own questions about his experience, but found he needed "a larger canvas." Jeffrey Brown talks to Powers about his novel, "Yellow Birds," which is nominated for the National Book Award.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally to the third of our Veterans Day reports, a novel set in Iraq and on the home front. It tells the story of a character named John Bartle, a 21-year-old private from rural Virginia.

The novel, titled “The Yellow Birds,” has been nominated for the National Book Award, and is the first by author Kevin Powers, who himself served in the Army in Iraq.

I spoke to Powers earlier this fall.

Welcome to you.

KEVIN POWERS, Author, “The Yellow Birds”: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it

JEFFREY BROWN: When did you know that you would write about the war and what did you want to convey?

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KEVIN POWERS: About two years, a year or two years after I got home, I started trying to deal with my own questions about my experience.

And I started initially writing poems about the war. I have been Writing poems and stories since I was about 13. And I just started accumulating material and I realized that I needed a larger canvas to say what I wanted to say, which was to try to answer the question that people were asking me, which was, what was it like over there?

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess the inevitable question — I will get it out of the way quickly — is, how much of the book, the novel, is based on your experience?

KEVIN POWERS: The actual events that take place in the novel are not events that I experienced myself, but I think the kind of emotional core of the book was something that I identified with very strongly. This sort of interior life of the narrator, especially, is something that I felt — those emotions are things that I felt myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that comes through, and it’s very early, there is an extended passage where — the whole notion of luck and chance. You know, who gets hit, who gets hurt, who gets killed, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason.

KEVIN POWERS: Right, that’s true.

I think one of the things that is most difficult for him to adjust to is this feeling of powerlessness, that he’s kind of inside this thing that has a life of its own. The war itself seems to be — have a mind and a purpose beyond his ability to comprehend it. And that mere idea terrifies him and it’s hard for him to adjust to that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that the kind of thing that you felt yourself?

KEVIN POWERS: Certainly.

I can remember distinctly feeling like I had very little control over anything, other than kind of what was around me immediately, and even that, there were times where you recognize that whatever may happen to you isn’t necessarily going to be of your own volition.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is another thing that comes through is the feeling of, I guess you could call it the absurdity of the war, in this war.

There is a part where Bartle reflects that his grandfather’s war — quote — “had destination and purpose.” And then here there is a passage where you write: “We’d drive them out. We always had. We’d kill them. They’d shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they’d come back, and we’d start over.”

KEVIN POWERS: Right.

And some of that comes from, you know, as I was writing the book, you know, I stayed aware of what was happening in Iraq, in some of the places that I had been. And I would see, for instance, in Tal Afar, where I served part of my tour, it seemed as if every year there was a new battle. And it did. It does seem strange, and, absolutely, absurd is probably an appropriate word to describe it.

JEFFREY BROWN: From your perspective, does it feel like we’ve gotten a fair or clear picture of that experience so far?

KEVIN POWERS: I am happy that these stories are beginning to be told.

And I think a diversity of expression can only be good, so I think the more that people write about their experience, use their imagination to deal with their experience, you know, I think that’s going to be good for not only for those authors, but also for people who are interested in trying to understand it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new novel is “The Yellow Birds.”

Kevin Powers, thanks so much.

KEVIN POWERS: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

GWEN IFILL: You can find more of Jeff’s conversation and listen to a reading by the author. That’s on Art Beat.