Michener Grad’s Debut Among Year’s Best

Article and photos provided by the editors of Know

Powers, Kevin 2012Kevin Powers, MFA ’12, has written one of the best books of the year, according to The New York Times and The Guardian, the British national daily newspaper that gave Powers its Guardian First Book Award. The prize, awarded in late November, is the latest of several accolades for “The Yellow Birds,” Powers’ debut novel about two young soldiers in the Iraq War.

“It’s really quite incredible,” Powers said in an interview with The Guardian. “I think back to the long hours I spent writing this book by myself, wondering if anybody would read it or have any interest in it. So to have this kind of affirmation is really incredible.”

“The Yellow Birds” was also a National Book Award finalist.

In its “10 Best Books of 2012” list, The New York Times writes,

Book Cover_200px“A veteran of the Iraq war, Powers places that conflict at the center of his impressionistic first novel, about the connected but diverging fates of two young soldiers and the trouble one of them has readjusting to life at home. Reflecting the chaos of war, the fractured narrative jumps around in time and location, but Powers anchors it with crystalline prose and a driving mystery: How did the narrator’s friend die?”

Powers returned to school — first to Virginia Commonwealth University, and then to the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin — after completing his military service. He wanted to pursue a childhood dream.

“Growing up, when I was young, as a teenager, reading and writing was really important to me,” he told The Guardian. “I’ve been writing poetry and stories since I was 13, but it never occurred to me that it was something someone like me could actually do. One of the things my service in Iraq did give me was this freedom from fear of failure…or any kind of expectation that I had to take a standard path.”

Michener Center Director James Magnuson read swatches of Powers’ novel in a fiction workshop during Powers’ first year in the program. “The battle scenes were so intense and poetic. I knew there was something really special going on,” he said in a May 2012 article about Powers in KNOW.

“I hope that when people read it, they will feel that they’ve had an experience that they might not have otherwise,” Powers said in the KNOW article. “The stories of the men and women who fight our wars are often — I believe — seen in our culture as incomprehensible, that if you haven’t been there you can’t understand. I don’t know if I agree with that notion.”

Yellow Birds Soar

Kevin Powers

Kevin Powers

Just four months after his graduation from UT’s Michener Center for Writers alum Kevin Powers is rocking the publishing world with his first novel. “The Yellow Birds” was released in the U.K. last week and Little, Brown and Company brings it out to U.S. readers next week, on Sept. 11. The book tells, in alternating chapters, the story of a young American GI’s experiences in Iraq and his difficult assimilation back home. Powers served as a machine-gunner in Mosel and Tal Afar in 2004-2005.

In effusive reviews from The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani and London’s Guardian, Powers’ debut is compared to iconic books of our time and in literary history. “Its depiction of war,” writes Kakutani, “has the surreal kick of [Tim] O’Brien’s 1978 novel, ‘Going After Cacciato,’ and a poetic pointillism distinctly its own.” The Guardian, who long-listed the novel for its 2012 First Book Award, says, “while few will have expected the war in Iraq to bring forth a novel that can stand beside ‘All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage,’ ‘The Yellow Birds’ does just that.”

YB 9:11:12Both reviews quote Powers’ hypnotic prose at length, calling his language “brilliantly observed,” and “the mark of an artist of the first order.” Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch, who acquired the manuscript last November and brought it into print in record time, calls the work “a voice from inside the fire.” Powers joined the Michener Center’s MFA program in 2009 as a poet and continues to write and publish poetry.

The U.S. launch will be celebrated with an event in Austin next Tuesday, Sept. 11, when the Michener Center for Writers, Texas Monthly, and the Texas Book Festival co-sponsor a conversation with Kevin Powers and TM editor Jake Silverstein—also a Michener alum— at Lambert’s Downtown BBQ from 6-8 p.m. An RSVP is required in advance through the magazine’s web page.