Kevin Powers didn’t flinch when the novelist Thrity Umrigar asked him a pointed question—had he considered incorporating substantial Iraqi characters in his much-honored novel “The Yellow Birds”?
Power’s first book, an impressionist portrayal of combat and its consequences during the Iraq War, won an Anisfield-Wolf book prize this year for fiction. The National Book Award cited it as “an urgent, vital, beautiful novel that reminds us through its scrupulous honesty how rarely its anguished truths are told.”
Umrigar, a professor of creative writing at Case Western Reserve University best known for her novels “The Space Between Us” and “The World We Found,” politely asked if Powers had thought to write a story that “would give the Iraq people agency?”
Powers, 32, nodded vigorously, standing at a lectern on the Case campus, and said he’d weighed that question. “Because I’m telling this single soldier’s story, I wanted to be true to his perspective, his inability to understand the larger picture,” Powers said of his narrator, Private John Bartle. “I wanted to stay true to the distance, the chasm that exists, in an unformed young person, not capable of these interactions.”
Powers himself joined the U.S. Army the day after he turned 17, serving as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He was deployed “outside the wire,” backing up infantry and cavalry in units trying to find Improvised Explosive Devices before they found their targets.
Thoughtful, soft-spoken and given to the “y’alls” of his Richmond, Virginia upbringing, Powers took 20 minutes to read the final chapter of “The Yellow Birds” to his Baker-Nord Center audience. It awakened in several veterans a desire to speak about the burdens they bury, and carry, from the killing they did and the dying they witnessed. The atmosphere was tense, and Powers listened long and intently. Three times he responded to statements from veterans with a quiet “absolutely.”
Occasionally, Powers said, someone will object. They will note that “War is hell” and assert there is nothing new to say. But, “it still feels necessary to me,” he said. “Until we can say, ‘War was hell,’ then somebody needs to keep saying it. We shouldn’t have the excuse that we didn’t know how bad it was.”
The writer assured his listeners that the specifics of “The Yellow Birds” “are very different from my own experience,” but acknowledged that he drew upon his own guilt and shame and attempts to make sense of his memories in crafting the novel.
“I spent four years writing it, more or less, in isolation,” he said. “I didn’t know if anyone would publish it or read it.” He often wrote until 3 a.m., persisting, he said, because writing was the way he makes sense of the world.
“I can’t separate reading and writing,” he said. “If I wasn’t a reader, I wouldn’t be a writer. I simply have never found a better way of dealing with the confusion I feel when confronted with the world.”
Powers didn’t keep a journal as a soldier, saying he didn’t have the stamina, or the mental reserves. But the books his mother mailed him were a lifeline, and he wrote some letters. About two years ago, a friend showed him one that he’d sent to her.
“I could see the point in the letter where I almost opened up, but didn’t,” he said.
Next April 1, Powers will publish his first collection of poetry, “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting.” And he has begun work on a second novel, set in hometown Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and the ashes of the Civil War.
He notes, “I will probably always be interested in the way that violence affects communities, how people respond to those sorts of situations and how people put a life together when not all the pieces are intact.”