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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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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