When tens of thousands of people took to the Seattle streets to protest the globalization of corporate capitalism, Sunil Yapa was there in spirit.
“I was completely engaged on an intellectual level,” says Yapa, who was a Penn State undergraduate when the “Battle of Seattle” raged downtown during the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999. The highly organized peaceful protest was met by Seattle Police with pepper spray, tear gas, stun grenades and mass arrests—tactics that ultimately led to the resignation of Police Chief Norm Stamper.
Back in Pennsylvania, Yapa followed the unfolding events. He knew classmates who’d made the cross-country trip and had contemplated joining them.
“Here’s where we get to my secret, which is not a secret: I had been arrested before, when I was underage, for something very not political, and I had spent a night in jail,” he says. “I knew one of the [police] strategies was going to be mass arrest and, I’ll be honest, I was too much of a coward to go. I didn’t want to get arrested.”
Sixteen years later, Yapa boldly calls readers back to witness the Battle of Seattle. His debut novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist,blends fact and fiction to capture the brutality and the bloodshed, the commotion and confusion, and the sublimity of strangers coming together in heartfelt support of a common cause.
He writes: “And now, here they were, thousands in the streets and the way their voices rose and fell, sliding down the hill, ringing off the renovated lofts, the brick apartments, the cars parked nose to tail along the oil-black street—it was like an alarm bell sounding in his chest. It was the million-voiced ocean roar of Calcutta or Caracas booming from their angry mouths, echoing in the canyons of smoked glass and steel.”
These are the early hours of the protest as interpreted by Victor, a 19-year-old biracial man who’s soon swept up in the protestors’ cause. Recently returned to his home city, currently living under an overpass, he starts out just looking to unload a backpack’s worth of weed to fund future world travel.
“I admire Victor’s courage,” Yapa says. “I admire his sense of searching, his ability to live the question. He’s exposing himself to a lot of things, and I really respect that he’s off the beaten track, he’s off the happy track of life, he’s not in college and preparing himself for a job. He doesn’t have answers and the world is overwhelming and he is very angry… but he’s willing to sit with that and to try to figure it out.”
Yapa is the son of a Sri Lankan father—a Marxist professor of geography, with whom he studied at Penn State—and a Montanan mother. He began Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist as an MFA student at Hunter College, under the mentorship of Colum McCann. He finished a 650-page first draft, featuring 60 main characters, while working as a traveling salesman in a remote location without Internet connection.
Upon returning to the States, his laptop was promptly stolen, and he lost the entire manuscript.
“Hopefully I’ll be the last dummy that that ever happens to—Dropbox, hello?” he says, “but honestly, after, I was depressed for probably three months. Didn’t get off my dad’s couch, watched every basketball game, got deep into my Netflix bingeing trying not to think about it.”
He realized he didn’t want to try to recreate that draft from his notes; instead, he would rewrite it from scratch. The process led to a crucial realization.
“I love reading fiction because I care about the characters and what happens to them,” he says. “Sixty characters, you don’t care about—it’s too many. So I made a decision to find the characters that moved me the most, that I cared about the most. So the characters that we have in the end are the ones that I really emotionally relate to, on both sides of the conflict.”
Among seven main characters, Yapa features two career-activist protest leaders, a Sri Lankan delegate to the WTO conference, and two beat cops: Officer Timothy Park, with a marred face and menacing attitude; and “Ju,” a street-smart officer of Guatemalan descent, originally from LA.
“Willing to protect people from their own stupidity. Willing to be the bad guy. Knowing when to look and when to look away. That was the job, too,” he writes of Ju.
Finally, there’s Chief Bishop, a lonely widower (and Victor’s estranged stepfather), who, nevertheless, orders his officers to “fucking light them up” if protestors refuse to clear roadways on command.
“It’s difficult to admire a man who orders 50,000 nonviolent protestors to be tear gassed,” Yapa says, “but on the other hand, he’s really trying to do what he thinks is right. He’s trying to work with people, and yet he’s getting a lot of pressure from above to clear the streets…. I guess the best way to put it would be, I feel disappointed in his head—in the decisions he makes—but I admire his heart.”
Editor Lee Boudreaux found a lot to admire in Yapa’s second, slimmed-down draft:she acquired Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist less than 48 hours after his agent sent it to select publishers as the lead title for her new imprint, Lee Boudreaux Books.
“That was absolutely beyond my wildest dreams,” he says. “I just wrote as honest a book in as honest language as I could, and to have Lee Boudreaux respond to it in that way was amazing—one of the things I like most about Lee is that she takes chances on unexpected voices. She’s willing to take the risk to launch her imprint with a book about protests—I actually think it’s a father-son story, but it’s about protests—that breaks form in a lot of places. I think she’s incredibly brave to do that.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.