Sunil Yapa’s debut novel “Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” breaks the mold of our current polarized political climate and examines a controversial moment in American history from multiple angles. In doing so, the author, who is a State College native, reminds readers of the value that comes from trying to understand one another.
Yapa’s novel is set during the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests. It documents the disruption of civil disobedience, while also exploring the interpersonal bonding that occurs when people come together to express their opinions. Throughout the novel, Yapa writes from the perspective of seven characters who humanize the concerns and beliefs of a diverse set of individuals.
The book opens from the perspective of Victor, a biracial teenager who ran away from home and backpacked around the world. Victor’s primary goal upon arriving at the World Trade Organization protest is to sell marijuana to the protesters. But he soon finds himself rallying to the activists’ cause and volunteering to be placed in lockdown, a circle of protesters chained together. Here, Victor meets King and John Henry, two other activists whose perspectives the narration adopts in other points of the novel.
Yapa also investigates the opposite side of the conflict, exploring the thoughts of two police officers and the Seattle police chief, Bishop, who happens to be Victor’s estranged father. In this way, rather dramatically, Yapa frames the protests as a reunion of father and son, albeit a violent one. Similarly, Yapa’s ability to jump between these various perspectives helps paint a more comprehensive picture of the protest. Why are 60,000 people here in the first place? Why do the police resort to violence?
Perhaps the most interesting character perspective Yapa assumes is that of Dr. Wickramsinghe, a Sri Lankan delegate who is trying to attend the very meeting the protestors are attempting to block. For Dr. Wickramsinghe, Sri Lanka’s entry into the WTO means the possibility of rejuvenation for a country damaged by civil war. His presence in the novel offers a fresh perspective on the issue of globalization. This point of view pivots away from the primary American concern of structural unemployment and humanizes the concerns of people in the developing world—and, as some would argue, their exploitation.
Although “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” is a fictionalized account of events that occurred nearly twenty years ago, the book conjures up questions that seem especially relevant today. It explores police brutality, the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, and the place of the United States in the international community. But as Yapa’s novel puts these issues forward, there is one underlying theme that bundles the seven characters together: the revolutionary power of empathy.
Reviewer Philip Chwistek is the undergraduate intern for the Center for American Literary Studies at Penn State.
As part of Centre County Reads, there will be a roundtable discussion on activist literature on February 27 at 3:30 p.m. in the Penn State Paterno Library’s Mann Assembly Room.
Author Sunil Yapa will visit Penn State on March 21 to discuss his novel at 7 p.m. at the Hub-Robeson Center. He will also give a reading on March 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Nittany Lion Inn as part of the Mary E. Rolling Reading Series.