In his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers draws on his own experience of combat in Iraq to tell the story of Private John Bartle and his attempts to honor a promise to bring his friend Murph home safely from the war. Told in chapters which alternate between a brief two-month stretch of the war, and the much longer period of Bartle’s homecoming and adjustment to civilian life, The Yellow Birds is a rich, powerfully felt addition to the ranks of American war literature. Powers’s novel was recently named a National Book Award finalist. To read a review of it, visit SLJ’s “Adult Books for Teens” blog for September 10.
Since you fought in Iraq, is your novel semiautobiographical?
The autobiographical elements are primarily internal. While observations of the landscape and some of the sensations of the combat scenes come from experience, the actual events of the book are all invented. But I identified very strongly with Bartle’s emotional life. What he feels and thinks, his tendency toward obsessive reflection, these are things that felt true to my memories of what it felt like to be at war and then come home baffled by it all, though with varying degrees of intensity and emerging from different specific circumstances.
Have you read much classic war literature, and were you intimidated to add your voice to this distinguished group? Are there any particular writers you tried to emulate?
I wasn’t really intimidated. I think that would have required a presumption that what I was doing would be added to the group you mentioned. To be honest, that simply never occurred to me. I wasn’t sure if it would get published, let alone read, so I didn’t worry about whether there was a place for my voice. And while I had read a lot of war literature when I was younger, I never consciously separated it into another category. A Farewell to Arms was and continues to be a favorite of mine, but I just thought of it as a book I loved that happened to be about war in the same way that Look Homeward Angel was a book I loved that happened to be about growing up in the South or Blood Meridian was a book I loved about the West and the violent making of America. It wasn’t until I got back from overseas that I started to seek out books about war, not as a writer but as a confused kid who’d always felt that I best understood the world through the lens of stories and poems. So I read Tim O’Brien and Yusef Komunyakaa and Stephen Wright and reread things that I’d read when I was younger like Red Badge of Courage. I’m sure all of the books I’ve just mentioned influenced me as a writer, because I know they influenced me as a human being, but I could not say exactly how in either case.
What I read the 600-plus-word sentence in which Bartle lays bare all of his emotions about returning to the States, I knew I was reading a soon-to-be classic. Why did you decide to concentrate so much of Bartle’s emotions into that one sentence?
My intention was that that sentence would be the hinge on which the whole book swung. Because so much of the book involves Bartle trying to lay out the terms of his confrontation with his memories and experience, locating them in space and time, trying to order and control his brief moments of recognition, I felt that the event that would determine his fate would involve an inability to keep those things at bay. The flood of it nearly kills him. But because he survives that moment of surrender to everything he had previously fought, he begins to recognize, very slowly, that he can survive and can continue to survive.
I was very impressed by the way you altered the style of your prose between the sections in Iraq and those in the States—was it tough to achieve that balance?
It was difficult to achieve balance for several reasons. One of them was trying to make sure there was variation between the immediacy of his memories of Iraq and those of his confusing homecoming. I also had to contend with the fact that the story is told entirely through memory and a lot of time has passed. And because the book is somewhat fragmented in its structure, I thought that I had to consider the dramatic elements, how to keep the reader interested in the specifics of Murph’s death, how to pull back in some moments so the violence and difficulty of the material wouldn’t become so unbearable as to make a reader turn away. I hoped that some combination of the structure of the book and the variation of the prose, the movement up and down through registers, would lead to a challenging but coherent reading experience.
Did you write the novel with any particular audience in mind? Did you ever consider teens as part of its potential readership?
I began to write The Yellow Birds because I had questions. Some of them were related to my own service. Others were larger questions about the war or just being a person in the world. What does it mean to try to be good and fail? How can any of us really be responsible to another human being? Are we defined by the things we’ve done or is there room to change as we make new choices? I am certainly not the first person to have asked these questions, and I figured that other people must have them too. I suppose I hoped by that writing this book and having other people read it we might be able to ask them together. As to your last question, I’ve never thought about the age of readers. People, young or old, should read what they are interested in, they should try to find what moves them and makes them think about the world in a new way. I don’t think that age makes much difference in that.
Mark Flowers is a teen librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He contributes to a variety of library journals and blogs, and maintains his own blog on YA literature and librarianship at crossreferencing.wordpress.com.
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