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.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
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How Moonlight’s win led to the most shocking Oscars night in history

They gave Best Picture to La La Land first by mistake.

“This is not a joke by the way. This is not a joke.” You know things are bad when, at possibly the most anticipated cultural moment of the year, you have to keep insisting what’s happening is not a bad skit. Yes, La La Land was announced as the winner of Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards - but it later turned out that Moonlight had actually won the prize.

We often talk about “Best Picture shocks”, but this was an unprecedented moment in Oscars history: an extraordinary sequence of live television that ended in the makers of La La Land, led by producer Jordan Horowitz, having to hand over the most prestigious award of the night, mid-acceptance speech, to the Moonlight team.

But Moonlight’s victory is shocking in a more significant way than the deep, horrible cringe you feel watching the La La Land team’s celebrations turn sour. It’s shocking because a genuinely original and urgent underdog film about the coming-of-age of a black gay man won Best Picture. 

It’s tempting to see Moonlight’s win as part of a conversation that started last year, when the #OscarsSoWhite scandal began. But, of course, the Oscars has a much longer history of rewarding straight white stories and actors. This was the first Oscars in a decade with multiple black acting winners. Viola Davis became the first black person to receive an Oscar, Emmy and Tony for acting. Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim to win for acting, ever. In 2017.

This year's awards saw the continuation of a split result for the Best Directing and Best Picture gongs - something that was once relatively rare but has happened almost every year since 2013. But while La La Land did still pick up six awards, and Moonlight three, there can be no doubt that this was Moonlight’s night.

"All you people out there who feel like there's no mirror for you, that your life is not reflected… we have your back," director Barry Jenkins said when accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The biggest shock of the night wasn’t the seven-minute long fumble over who actually won Best Picture. It’s that a film about black gay love could move the voting members of an awards ceremony dogged by such a long history of racism. Oh, and that Suicide Squad is now an Oscar-winning film.

The full list of winners and nominees at the 2017 Academy Awards

Best picture

Winner: Moonlight
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

Best director

Winner: La La Land - Damien Chazelle
Arrival - Denis Villeneuve
Hacksaw Ridge - Mel Gibson
Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan
Moonlight - Barry Jenkins

Best actor

Winner: Casey Affleck - Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield - Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling - La La Land
Viggo Mortensen - Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington - Fences

Best actress

Winner: Emma Stone - La La Land
Isabelle Huppert - Elle
Ruth Negga - Loving
Natalie Portman - Jackie
Meryl Streep - Florence Foster Jenkins

Best supporting actor

Winner: Mahershala Ali - Moonlight
Jeff Bridges - Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges - Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel - Lion
Michael Shannon - Nocturnal Animals

Best supporting actress

Winner: Viola Davis - Fences
Naomie Harris - Moonlight
Nicole Kidman - Lion
Octavia Spencer - Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams - Manchester by the Sea

Best cinematography

Winner: La La Land - Linus Sandgren
Arrival - Bradford Young
Lion - Greig Fraser
Moonlight - James Laxton
Silence - Rodrigo Prieto

Best original score

Winner: La La Land - Justin Hurwitz
Jackie - Mica Levi
Lion - Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka
Moonlight - Nicholas Britell
Passengers - Thomas Newton

Best original song

Winner: La La Land - City of Stars by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
La La Land - Audition by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Moana - How Far I'll Go by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Trolls - Can't Stop the Feeling by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster
Jim: The James Foley Story - The Empty Chair by J Ralph and Sting

Best original screenplay

Winner: Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan
20th Century Women - Mike Mills
Hell or High Water - Taylor Sheridan
La La Land - Damien Chazelle
The Lobster - Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou

Best adapted screenplay

Winner: Moonlight - Barry Jenkins and Alvin McCraney
Arrival - Eric Heisserer
Fences - August Wilson
Hidden Figures - Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Lion - Luke Davies

Best costume design

Winner: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Colleen Atwood
Allied - Joanna Johnston
Florence Foster Jenkins - Consolata Boyle
Jackie - Madeline Fontaine
La La Land - Mary Zophres

Best make-up and hairstyling

Winner: Suicide Squad - Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini and Christopher Nelson
A Man Called Ove - Eva Von Bahr and Love Larson
Star Trek Beyond - Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo

Best documentary feature

Winner: OJ: Made in America
13th
Fire At Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated

Best sound editing

Winner: Arrival - Sylvain Bellemare
Deepwater Horizon - Wylie Stateman and Renee Tondelli
Hacksaw Ridge - Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright
La La Land - Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
Sully - Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman

Best sound mixing

Winner: Hacksaw Ridge - Kevin O'Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie and Peter Grace
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi - Gary Summers, Jeffrey J Haboush and Mac Ruth
Arrival - Bernard Gariepy Strobl and Claude La Haye
La La Land - Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee and Steve A Morrow
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson

Best foreign language film

Winner: The Salesman - Iran
A Man Called Ove - Sweden
Land of Mine - Denmark
Tanna - Australia
Toni Erdmann - Germany

Best animated short

Winner: Piper - Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer
Blind Vaysha - Theodore Ushev
Borrowed Time - Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj
Pear Cider and Cigarettes - Robert Valley and Cara Speller
Pearl - Patrick Osborne

Best animated feature

Winner: Zootopia
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

Best production design

Winner: La La Land - David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco
Arrival - Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Stuart Craig and Anna Pinnock
Hail, Caesar! - Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh
Passengers - Guy Hendrix Dyas and Gene Serdena

Best visual effects

Winner: The Jungle Book - Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R Jones and Dan Lemmon
Deepwater Horizon - Craig Hammack, Jason Snell, Jason Billington and Burt Dalton
Doctor Strange - Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould
Kubo and the Two Strings - Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean and Brad Schiff
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal Hickel and Neil Corbould

Best film editing

Winner: Hacksaw Ridge - John Gilbert
Arrival - Joe Walker
Hell or High Water - Jake Roberts
La La Land - Tom Cross
Moonlight - Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon

Best documentary short

Winner: The White Helmets - Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara
4.1 Miles - Daphne Matziaraki
Extremis - Dan Krauss
Joe's Violin - Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen
Watani: My Homeland - Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis

Best live action short

Winner: Sing - Kristof Deak and Anna Udvardy
Ennemis Interieurs - Selim Azzazi
La Femme et le TGV - Timo Von Gunten and Giacun Caduff
Silent Nights - Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson
Timecode - Juanjo Gimenez

***

Now listen to Anna discussing the Oscars on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.