This essay originally aired on April 7, 2016.
“When will we realize that the fact that we can become accustomed to anything…makes it necessary to examine carefully everything we have become accustomed to?” This quote from George Bernard Shaw can go two ways. Humanity’s natural adaptability is usually held as a shining example of how we can grow and progress. But it also works in other ways. We can normalize the most insidious injustices around us, from global sweatshops that create our shirts to the police brutality in our own country.
Enter the new book by State College native, Sunil Yapa, titled, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. Yapa illustrates one way humans fight against systemic injustices: through protests. The book is set in Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization conference, where over 50,000 anti-corporate protestors gather to curb the trade negotiations. This book follows seven characters amid the confusion and disorder that envelops them. The tension is amped up by the presence of only 900 armed police officers quickly losing their grip on social control.
Yapa skillfully fleshes out the black-and-white sound bite we all hear on TV: “Violent protestors clash with police.” Instead, in this story, we see the inner turmoil of Seattle’s Police. Chief Bishop’s 19-year old son Victor is involved with the protest. Officer Julia is a woman of Guatemalan descent who policed the violent Rodney King riots. On the other side, there is King, a protestor whose anarchist bent has wavered from violence to peace and Charles, a WTO representative from Sri Lanka who witnessed his own country’s brutal 1983 riots, only to be humiliated by Seattle’s baton-happy police in a country so far from his own.
While Yapa quickly switches from one character to another, he avoids presenting any one of their stories as purely positive or negative. He embraces their humanness, full of self-doubt and hypocrisies. When Chief Bishop pepper sprays unarmed protestors in the face, he mumbles, “I’m so very sorry,” to each of them. The same dissonance happens with Charles, who knows the trade liberalization policies he’s here to discuss will negatively impact his own country’s workers. Both Charles and Bishop struggle to believe in the system that employs them.
Yapa’s prose halts and flows like a casual yet involved conversation, sometimes disrupted by a too directive narrative when his voice takes over for the characters. Additionally, the task of grounding the many voices of anti-globalization falls heavily on only one character, Charles. He’s more a mirror to American protester sentiment than a character in his own right. Nonetheless, the book invites questions on empathy, globalization and civic responsibility, and whether extra-institutional disruption is enough for progress.
Acts of civil disobedience intrigue us --- done in the right way, small steps can make shambles of the misguided dreams built up by heads of state. Yapa’s book rings with relevancy in an era where the recent riots in Ferguson, Baltimore and Egypt have forced us to reconsider what we as humans have grown to accept or overlook.
“Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” by Sunil Yapa is published by Lee Boudreaux Books.
Reviewer Ruth Canagarajah is a policy analyst from State College.