Former soldier trying to make sense of trauma

By Stephen Jewell

Former soldier Kevin Powers tells Stephen Jewell how his experience in Iraq led him to write.

Kevin Powers. Photo / Supplied
Kevin Powers. Photo / Supplied

Described by Tom Wolfe as "the All Quiet On The Western Front of America's Arab Wars", Kevin Powers' debut novel The Yellow Birds has received high praise from diverse figures such as Gold author Chris Cleave and Homeland star Damian Lewis. But if the burden of expectation is weighing heavily upon the American soldier-turned-writer, he shrugs it off effortlessly when I meet him at a West End hotel during his short promotional trip to London.

"It's satisfying that people seem to have responded so strongly to the book," he says. "But as far as those kinds of comparisons are concerned, I'm happy to let people make their own assessments. I just tried to write the best book that I was able to at the time."

Primarily set in Tal Afar, in the Nineveh province of Iraq, The Yellow Birds centres around 21-year-old US Army private James Bartle, who is haunted by the death of naive new recruit, Murph. Although he served in the same region of Iraq, Powers insists the novel isn't autobiographical.

"I share some superficial details with him but my experience of the war was actually quite different," he says. "To some degree, the perspective is undeniably mine at times but I'm also imagining reactions to events I didn't actually experience, so I had to create another person to do that."

As with Bartle - whose name is a tribute to Herman Melville's short story Bartleby, The Scrivener - Powers' love of literature made him feel like an outsider as a teenager. "When you're a 13-year-old boy, your first instinct is not to announce to the world that you like poetry - at least where I grew up, in a slightly rural community," recalls Powers, who like his main protagonist, hails from Richmond, Virginia.

"Some of the geographical details come from personal observations but I'm certainly not basing him on myself, although I do identify with his emotions and things like that."

As he notes in the preface to the proof copy, Powers was driven to write The Yellow Birds - the title is taken from a traditional US Army marching cadence - in response to constant enquiries about what it was like "over there".

"I've been asked that so many times but I came to realise I didn't have an answer that really made any sense, even to myself," he admits. "I tried to find some kind of analogous situation to explain it but wasn't able to. But one of the things that I thought - and still think - is that on an emotional level, all people will be able to connect with the feelings the characters go through, like fear, anger and confusion.

"Everybody experiences that at some point in their lives, so as soldiers we don't have a monopoly on that. I thought it would be more productive to try and find a way to access the emotional kinds of places that I was trying to go to rather than just talking about where the troops are arranged on the battlefield."

Completed over a four-year period, the book grew out of a series of poems penned by Powers. "Some intriguing ideas and even some loose approximations of the characters kept coming up again and again, so I thought to myself that I needed a different canvas to arrange this material I couldn't seem to get away from. So I started trying to write a short story, which kept getting longer and longer, until I realised I might as well admit that I was writing a novel."

With chapters alternating between before, during and after the war, Powers examines not just the immediate consequences of battle but the specific situations that lead up to it and the often-traumatic aftermath.

"One of the reasons I settled on that structure was to reflect the way that the narrator's memories have intruded on his present life, that his memories have influenced his outlook to the extent that they now dominate his existence," he says. "He's almost living in his memories, as he's not able to push them out. I thought that in structuring the book the way that I did wouldn't necessarily mirror that exactly but it would at least reflect the transient nature of his experiences."

Powers plays down any wider political implications, instead concentrating on the sometimes very costly price the soldiers on the ground have to pay.

"As much as I could, I tried to avoid having any sort of agenda. People have access to all the information they need about the larger picture so they can make their own determination about the war. I was more interested in looking at it on a smaller scale. 'What happens to the people who go?' If you put aside whether it was a just or an unjust war, the fact remains there are still people participating in it to this day and it's still affecting their lives and those of the people who care about them."

Unlike the numerous books and films inspired by previous conflicts, from the world wars to Vietnam, a lasting peace has yet to be achieved in Iraq.

"That's one of the things that causes me some sort of cognitive dissonance," says Powers. "My experience there was in 2004 and 2005, so the fact it is still ongoing is a little hard to process. Obviously, I'm aware of that but, for me, it's in some kind of past, so there was a strangeness in looking at it through that lens."

The Yellow Birds (Sceptre $29.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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