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Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist


Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

In November 1999, 50,000 people converged on Seattle to put a halt to a meeting of the World Trade Organization. The event has likely faded from many Americans’ memory, but not that of Sunil Yapa, whose powerful and ambitious debut novel, YOUR HEART IS A MUSCLE THE SIZE OF A FIST, chronicles that single, violent day of protest. Yapa follows seven characters --- a pair of activists struggling to maintain their commitment to nonviolence, a teenage runaway and weed dealer swept up in the day’s events, two cops facing down the crowd, Seattle’s beleaguered chief of police, and a delegate who’s desperate to get to his scheduled meetings --- as the conflict in the street escalates.

Wisely, Yapa doesn’t delve too deeply into the broader political and economic concerns that drove the WTO protests (suffice to say that a lot of people, from anarchists to environmentalists, decided to stand against the relentless march of global capitalism). The book is intimate; it cares more about people than the nitty-gritty of economic policy. We get to know Yapa’s characters, each in their own way struggling to understand the complications and contradictions of the world that vacillates between being heartbreakingly beautiful and ruthlessly hard. “Life’s a cruel thing, son” one character observes. “Give it enough time and it will take back everything you have ever loved.”

"YOUR HEART IS A MUSCLE THE SIZE OF A FIST is a testament to the possibility and power of human connection, and an urgent and necessary reminder that protest against injustice is vital..."

At the novel’s core is Victor, a 19-year-old biracial global nomad recently returned to Seattle. He’s spent three years adrift following the death of his activist mother, and now he’s a young man “absolutely allergic to belief…and totally alone.” Victor heads downtown not to protest, but to sell marijuana. After all, he’s seen the maquiladoras in Mexico where they make the “flannels and fleeces” the privileged activists wear, and he can’t connect that reality with the raucous, optimistic protest he sees in Seattle. How can you fix a problem so complex by dressing up in a turtle costume? But after a scuffle with a police officer, he joins the protest, encouraged by King and John Henry, nonviolent protesters who see something in him that he doesn’t see himself.

As Victor is drawn into direct action, his stepfather, Seattle’s Chief of Police, gears up to defend his city against an army that has “come marching like lambs to the slaughter.” Bishop is not a bad cop, but he has turned tired and cynical after the death of his wife and the disappearance of his beloved stepson. The pair is divided both by grief and by race. “How could he, a white man, truly prepare his son for that bleak knowledge that was coming?” Bishop wonders, as he reflects on his desire to shield his child from danger while also steeling him against the realities of life as a black man in America.

Inevitably, the protests bring estranged father and son together, but not before each is forced to reevaluate how he sees the world, as is virtually every other character. As the conflict between police and demonstrators turns brutal (the vivid descriptions of the effects of tear gas will make readers squirm), King questions her commitment to nonviolence --- a principle she hasn’t always adhered to in the past. In for an even ruder awakening is Charles Wickramsinghe, the delegate from Sri Lanka, who has spent the last five years campaigning to get his tiny island country into the WTO, a process that “was a bit like navigating a coral reef in your bare feet.” For him, the factories and exports that will come with full membership in the off-kilter global economy are a matter of life and death: “They must open that door. Or I fear we will end up starving on the doorstep.”

Yapa’s sympathies clearly lie with the protesters, but the establishment figures are equally complex. Park, a hot-headed cop itching to bust heads, seems like a bad guy until you learn a key fact about his past that puts his hair-trigger attitude into perspective. Ju, his partner, fled violence in Guatemala as a child and policed the LA streets during the Rodney King riots. The order she protects is a bulwark against unimaginable chaos. If there’s a single villain here, it’s the director of the WTO, who makes a brief appearance near the novel’s end. He swiftly and brutally punctures Charles’s hopes, forcing the latter to confront how the world’s leaders really see him: “A small fish. A big joke. The banana-and-elephant man.”

Yapa’s book arrives at a timely moment, when it seems to have become harder than ever to find connections across political and social divides. YOUR HEART IS A MUSCLE THE SIZE OF A FIST is a testament to the possibility and power of human connection, and an urgent and necessary reminder that protest against injustice is vital, even when you think, as Victor does at the novel’s beginning, that “the world is large and I am small.” Raised together, Yapa reminds us, even small voices can change the world.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on January 14, 2016

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist
by Sunil Yapa

  • Publication Date: October 18, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Lee Boudreaux / Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316386553
  • ISBN-13: 9780316386555