Iraq war veteran's novel is Cuesta College's book of the year

Kevin Powers, who spent a year in Iraq, wrote ‘The Yellow Birds’ to confront and explain his experience.
Kevin Powers, who spent a year in Iraq, wrote ‘The Yellow Birds’ to confront and explain his experience.

When Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers returned home, he kept hearing the same question. “When people found out I had served in Iraq, they almost always asked, ‘What was it like?’” said Powers, who fielded that query repeatedly from friends, family members and co-workers.

Just as often, he found himself at a loss as to how to answer. “That was a real problem,” he said.

So Powers set out to confront the issue the same way he’s always approached life’s questions — through literature. The result was his critically acclaimed debut novel “The Yellow Birds.” Powers will discuss the book March 26 in San Luis Obispo as part of this year’s Book of the Year program co-sponsored by Cuesta College and San Luis Obispo County Library.

Powers, who grew up in Richmond, Va., enrolled in the U.S. Army at age 17, following a family tradition of military service established by his father and grandfather. Between February 2004 and March 2005, he served as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq.

Honorably discharged at age 26, Powers enrolled at the Virginia Commonwealth University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English in 2008. He earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Texas in Austin in 2012.

“It took me some time to process my own experience just until I was comfortable thinking about it,” Powers said. “It took me time to process the questions I wanted to answer.

“That’s what led me to really begin with purpose and a specific goal in mind — to write this story down,” the author added.

Penned over a four-year period, “The Yellow Birds” follows two soldiers bound together by basic training fighting for survival in the streets of Al Tafar, under the command of the brutal, battle-scarred Sgt. Sterling.

Pvt. John Bartle, 21, promises the mother of 18-year-old Pvt. Daniel “Murph” Murphy that he’ll bring her son home alive, but he knows secretly that he’ll be forced to betray his word. Their relationship, Powers said, represents “the conflict between the instinct toward self-preservation and that really real desire to live up to the bonds people develop.”

“We’re silently telling each other that we’ll protect each other and look after each other (but) our intentions don’t always mean we’ll be successful,” he said.

Bartle provides the book’s fractured, nonlinear narrative. The soldier suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that makes it difficult for him to separate past from present.

“In a way, what was important for me in writing the book was talking about and thinking about the dangers that exist not just in a combat environment,” Powers said, drawing attention to the psychological perils as well as the physical ones.

He cautioned readers from drawing too many connections between Bartle’s journey and his own. Although the two share some biographical details — both hail from Virginia’s state capital, for instance — their wartime experiences vary greatly, the author said.

“The affinity is more of an interior one — that sense of powerlessness, the paralysis that comes from recognizing the magnitude of what you’re involved in, the inability to figure out what exactly is happening here,” Powers explained. Published on Sept. 11, 2012, by Little, Brown and Co., “The Yellow Birds” has drawn comparisons to Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” The novel, which was named one of The New York Times’ 100 Most Notable Books of 2012, received the 2013 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.

Power, who followed up “The Yellow Birds” with the 2014 poetry collection “Letter Composed During a Lull in Fighting,” said he’s been awed by the reaction to the novel.

“There’s something about the interior life that Bartle has, (about) the confusion he deals with when he comes home that resonates with a lot of vets,” Powers said.

But “The Yellow Birds” also speaks to people outside of the military. “Somebody will tell me that their husband (or son) or daughter served and they weren’t able to understand what they’d gone through,” Powers said. “They felt that reading the book gave them some point of access. That’s been incredibly rewarding.”

The author is currently working on a novel about a former slave owner and his wife set on a Virginia plantation during the early days of the Reconstruction. “There was a real opportunity in the first couple years after the Civil War to put our country back together in the state of ideals upon which our country was founded — real justice, real equality,” Powers said. He hopes to use his novel to examine why and how that opportunity was missed.

“As a person who’s seen this kind of violence firsthand, I think it’s a question that will be with me as long as I have the ability to think about it,” he said.