Kevin Powers: "When I was serving, I gave up any notion of a just cause."

The winner of the Guardian First Book Award interviewed.

Last night, the American writer and former soldier Kevin Powers won the Guardian First Book Award for his novel "The Yellow Birds", set during the Iraq war. I spoke to Powers about his service in Iraq and the tradition of the war novel.

Like the narrator of your novel The Yellow Birds, John Bartle, you went straight into the army from high school, rather than going to university. Was that always the plan? Or did you fall into military service by accident, like Bartle does?

I suppose I share that trajectory with him – it wasn’t something I planned to do from a young age. At the time I made the decision to sign up, it did seem like a practical choice, for a number of reasons. There’s an unofficial tradition of serving in the military in my family – my father, my uncle and my grandfather had all served. I did want to go to college, but for financial and other reasons it didn’t seem like I had all that many options. So knowing that the army would pay for that after my service … and I did believe that it was an honourable choice to make. I suppose in a way I was attracted by the sense of adventure.

Did it also have something to do with where you’re from, with Virginia and a particular tradition of military service there?

Not only Virginia, but throughout the south and the rural and semi-rural areas of America. It’s often the case that a significant portion of soldiers would come from those areas. It’s probably more common in places like where I grew up to go into the military than it may be in, let’s say, New York or Boston.

This is not just a novel about war is it? In a way, it’s also a book about Virginia isn’t it?

That’s true. Home, and the idea of home, figured prominently in the writing of it. So it seemed appropriate for the characters to have that shared geographical history.

What was it like going to college as a veteran, being alongside students who hadn’t had that experience?

Well, of course I was several years older than most of the other students. I probably didn’t take things for granted that I might have had I gone right after high school. I was aware of my own sense of being separate.

There’s a connection between what you’ve just said and one of the themes of the novel - that war is a kind of laboratory of solipsism in which soldiers care principally about saving their own skins.

That’s true. Bartle has to comes terms with his own survival and his responsibility for the people around him – particularly Murph. And when he comes home, the direct challenge he has to face is coming to terms with his individual experience. He has to fight that battle on his own too.

Bartle says early in the novel that “war is the great maker of solipsists” yet the book is also about relationships – between Bartle and Murph, and between him and Sterling. One of the organising tensions in the novel seems to be between solipsism and comradeship.

Yes, I think so. Obviously, the survival instinct, the instinct for self-preservation, is probably the strongest instinct we have in common. But it does also bump up against loyalty and the sense of responsibility for one another.

Did your commitment to the ideas of comradeship and loyalty survive your own experiences in Iraq?

You know, it certainly affected the way I determined what it is I am loyal to. When I was serving, I gave up any notion of a just cause. I focused on the fact that I’d made a commitment to the people around me that we’d watch out for each other. So for me that was what drove me to do the job, to stay alert. It was all rooted in the fact that I felt I had an obligation to the people in my unit.

It’s interesting that you mention the idea of just cause. Was it the very idea of war being pursued in a just cause that you gave up or the idea that that war in particular was being fought in pursuit of a just cause?

To some degree, it’s both. I am able to imagine a situation in which, if war was the last course of action available [it is just], but in the case I happened to serve in I find it harder to make the same claims.

This is a novel, not a political tract, but do you see it as having a political aspect? Or were your motivations in the first place literary?

I did try to avoid having any kind of explicit agenda. I simply want to leave a record of my own attempts to reckon with these question through the imagination. But it’s hard to talk about war honestly and not … My personal opinion is that if you’re talking about war honestly, it will naturally tend towards being anti-war. I can’t envision an honest war novel that left war in a positive light.

The Yellow of Birds has attracted comparisons with great war novels of the past, such as Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead or Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Were such novels on your mind when you were writing this? Is that a tradition you felt yourself writing your way into?

No. Sitting in the small apartment in which I wrote most of the book, I was only hopeful that one person might read it and feel some kind of connection. But obviously I’m flattered and grateful that people seem to have had a powerful reaction to it.

Are there war novels that you particularly admire?

There certainly are. There’s a spectacular Vietnam novel called Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright. Being someone who both reads and writes poetry, I think of Yusef Komunyakaa, an American poet who has written a great deal about his experiences of the Vietnam war. Those poems are singularly important to me.

There’s a remarkable density of description in the novel, and I guess that’s the poet in you. Do you see yourself as a poet first and novelist second, or the other way round?

I guess I find the boundaries between poetry and prose to be somewhat permeable. When I have an idea and sit down to write something, I trust my instincts that I’m taking the right form. Poetry and prose are of equal importance to me as a reader and there doesn’t seem to be much difference in my own writing.

Were you writing in Iraq or did you start writing when you got back from your tour of duty there?

I didn’t have much spare mental energy to write [over there]. I did jot some things down in a notebook, but nothing that was directed with any kind of order.

Have many of those you fought alongside read the book?

No. But I’ve talked to some of them about it and they say they’re looking forward to reading it.

Do you think there’s a kind of standard time-lag before a war gains its own literature? After all, it took a while for a Vietnam literature to emerge. Is it still quite early as far as the literature of the Iraq war is concerned?

It does seem to be the case. But Iraq books are beginning to emerge – Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk for instance.

Kevin Powers, winner of the Guardian First Book Award (Photograph: Kelly Powers)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle