WITH The Washington Post recently decreeing that a golden age of contemporary war writing is upon us, it’s easy to forget how unlikely this literary blooming would have seemed a few years ago. Other than morbid and exploitative “kill memoirs,” very few works about Iraq or Afghanistan had penetrated the consciousness of American culture. Literature finds its vitality in the messy grays of existence, and the post-9/11 wars were too fresh and too polemical for many writers to do more than shout from the strongholds of black or white.
One of the few voices that has risen above the din is Brian Turner’s. His 2005 poetry collection Here, Bullet won him critical acclaim and a wide and loyal readership (it also brought the phrase “The Hurt Locker” to public attention), and his 2010 follow-up Phantom Noise was shortlisted for the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize, one of poetry’s top honors. A veteran of Iraq, Turner garnered tributes for verse that didn’t so much chronicle as meditate on the ruin of war.
I met Turner in 2010 in New York. He was there to read at the Guggenheim, but first visited a less glamorous venue — a small veterans writing workshop hosted by the NYU Creative Writing Program. We were mostly young men with a lot of opinions but few publishing credentials. (That would change with time; among others, our ranks included Phil Klay of Redeployment fame, Daily Beast editor Jacob Siegel, and Roy Scranton, who recently returned to Baghdad for Rolling Stone.) We’d had guest writers visit before, though some had seemed unsure of what to make of a group of volunteer soldiers-turned-scribes.
Turner was different. It wasn’t only because he was a veteran, too — it had more to do with the way he taught: a conversation with a famous writer, not a lecture from one. He discussed craft with us, not feelings or trauma. He helped instill in us the belief that writing about our wars was a worthy pursuit; that the subject mattered to our time; that people outside that little room did care about Iraq and Afghanistan, even when the stories from those places were ugly and corrupt. Especially then, Turner said. Especially then.
Turner’s long been able to channel his own stories from those places into the hauntingly beautiful, and his latest, My Life as a Foreign Country (W. W. Norton, September, 2014), proves that he’s as adept in prose as he is in verse. A mosaic of lyrical, interconnected pieces, his memoir bucks the traditional straight-line narrative of life as a soldier, instead moving in and out of time with a Billy Pilgrim–like fluidity. Readers jump from young Brian in a Fresno garage dojo with his father to Sergeant Turner guarding dirty, quiet Iraqi prisoners in intimate bursts of evocation. Turner also writes from the point of view of family members fighting in World War I and Vietnam, a drone aircraft “monitor[ing] the heat signatures of the living,” and, convincingly, an Iraqi insurgent fighting American troops.
A poignant rendering of war’s impact upon human souls, My Life as a Foreign Country has earned a lot of early praise, including a glowing blurb from Tim O’Brien, who calls the book “a humane, heartbreaking, and expertly crafted work of literature.” Turner talked with me on the phone from his home in Florida, where he’d recently returned from a book tour through the United Kingdom.
MATT GALLAGHER: What drew you to the mosaic structure of your memoir? Was it planned beforehand, or did it happen naturally?
BRIAN TURNER: A bit of both. A few years ago, I was trying my hand at haibun, a traditional Japanese poetry form, and in my case the poems were appearing as short prose travelogues punctuated by haiku. I tried a series of these and sort of mangled them, but eventually got enough material for an essay published in VQR, also titled “My Life as a Foreign Country.”
Once that essay was unified, I felt that a book had announced itself to me — though I still had a lot of work to do, and needed to figure out how to put everything together. Much of that involved trying, learning, and then trying again. As any book should.
At the time I was traveling a lot, and that contributed well to writing in fragments. In a way, those fragments mirrored the process of remembering — experience comes back in flashes and pieces, not as a coherent whole.
So it sounds like your background in poetry influenced and shaped your prose.
There are differences, of course, but my work as a poet allowed me to trust the jump cuts. Putting the book together felt like something akin to long-distance running — like a series of sprints put together to create a long-distance run.
After I had all the fragments, I worked with my editors (at Jonathan Cape and Norton) to chop everything up into a variety of disparate pieces, totally cleaving any braided narrative. Then began the process of rebraiding those disparate pieces into something new and unexpected.
The book begins and ends with the narrator — Sergeant Brian Turner — functioning as a drone, with “projectiles filled with poems and death and love.” Given today’s political climate and the ongoing debate about drones, this was a bold authorial decision. Why’d you do it?
There’s no way around it, the drone is one of the signature (war) devices of our time, along with the roadside bomb and suicide vest. As a writer, I was fascinated by the distance the drone has — the separation between the actual events (on the ground) and those watching the drone do its work that’s creepy and deeply, deeply disturbing. In a larger cultural way, it’s representative of how connected (or not) we are to the things we’re responsible for, as a military and a society.
A lot of people recognize that veterans carry the war inside of them when they come home, but there’s little talk of veterans still haunting the landscapes they left. That drone — in the book — creates a bridge between those two worlds, where I as a writer could investigate, meditate on that doubleness, and maybe even figure out some things.
It’s not just the drone — you assume a multitude of vantage points in these pages. From Iraq, there’s the perspective of insurgents, a bomb maker, a female suicide bomber; from history, there’s Civil War grave robbers, your great-grandfather who was gassed in the World War I trenches, and a host of others. The shadow of the past is a common theme in war literature, but you really immerse yourself here.
After poetry readings over the last several years, I was almost always asked, “Why’d you join the Army?” It seemed like people were surprised that a poet would join the military. To me, it wasn’t that surprising, but I guess it cut against the stereotype. I found the question problematic because, in a way, it didn’t recognize the humanity of those who put on the uniform. The idea that a soldier could have a sense of beauty or care about the world defied the archetype.
So I developed a shorthand answer: “I come from a long military tradition.” It was both true and a defense mechanism. I started asking myself, what does that really mean? What is the inheritance I’m alluding to? Part of the reason I wrote this book was to try and make sense, generationally, of what has taken place in our military history. What does 1864 have to do with 2003? And then, more personally, what did all these different wars have to do with me saying, “Yes, I’ll carry a weapon and go to combat,” and with me taking a pen to paper.
I had to try and inhabit different spaces and empathize with different people and personalities to try and better understand why I served, and why the men and women around me did the same.
In terms of people we may have fought against, it seems a normal thing for a soldier to wonder who the enemy is. The guy who’s trying to kill me as we drive back to base, who is he? What’s his life and family like, what made him pick up a weapon? His story is as interesting as mine, so why not explore that?
There’s a line in the book: “I don’t know what it’s like to have killers at the door, but I know what it’s like to be one of the men with a rifle coming in?” Is that why you write in the voices of active agents in combat as opposed to civilians?
It’s always interesting when people read your work and discover things you didn’t know. It’s a wonderful part of the process. And it’s true that making the decision to carry the gun is a mental space I’ve inhabited.
That said, there are a few sections in the mental space of noncombatants. The part with the Turkish cook in the mortar attack, for one. The widow who wakes up decades later, trying to hold on to a fading dream of her fallen husband. We had to cut a scene about an old Iraqi with a white beard sitting at a traffic circle right after Abu Ghraib hit the news. I was wearing dark sunglasses, watching him watch us, shaking his head, looking deeply disappointed. It was a very powerful moment for me that unfortunately didn’t make it into the final draft.
One of the more humorous parts of the book is the memory of you and your squad walking past a poetry night on a large base in Iraq. At the time, you chose not to participate. If you could go back in time, would you read?
Hmm. I don’t think it would be possible — even if I could go back and say, “Hey, Brian, you should do it,” I still wouldn’t.
At the time, it’s like I was playing a role: Sergeant Turner, infantryman. There are just some things we can’t say to each other while on the job. I didn’t want to undermine myself and let people know that I was sensitive and afraid. I needed to keep that role intact.
Without giving away too much to readers, there’s a harrowing scene in your book about an Iraqi of whom you write, “I never forgive myself for not having shot this man.” He dies, though the medic’s memory of the event is far different than yours. Explain this incongruity, and why it was important to include.
That distortion in memory was replicated in the learning process of writing it down, years after the event, and then asking others who were there for their memories of that night. I was learning about what I thought I already knew, but didn’t, or remembered a different way. That instance, and a few others in the book, raises the question of complicity, of responsibility. What have I been a part of? What do I need to tend to?
If I find I am complicit — culpable, for one death, is it possible that I’m somehow responsible for more, even for them all? Of course I wrestle with these things personally, but the reason for sharing on the page is that maybe readers in the States will recognize their own complicity and culpability. We wore the American flag on our uniforms after all, not just the emblems of military units.
If someone not familiar with your work, or war literature in general, were to pick up your book, what would you hope would resonate with him or her after reading?
The hope I have when I sit down with any book is that I’ll be augmented, transported — I want the edges of the known world to disappear.
When I’m done with a book like that, the world around me has changed somehow. I look at it differently, I interact with it differently. That’s the hope I have for any reader, regardless of their background.
More specifically, I hope my book creates questions about the linkages between the pieces. A lot of work is to be done in the white space, in the seams. What does silence say in terms of memory?