Sunil Yapa's debut novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, takes place during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Fifty thousand people showed up to protest the meetings. The 900 cops on duty were overwhelmed and quickly turned to tear gas and pepper spray. The novel follows seven characters over the course of one day as the nonviolent protests devolve into riots. This is a book about love and empathy, about what it means to care—or not care—about other people in the world. The fever of protest doesn't change, even if the causes do. Anyone with an interest in how our world is strung together and divided and hanging in this crazy balance will, I think, enjoy how Sunil has put it all on display.
Sunil and I survived graduate school together, so I saw an early version of this book. But that does not obligate me to love his work. Just the opposite, in fact. It's really difficult to read work by a friend because you can see right through it. But I found myself forgetting that I know the author and was totally engrossed.
Sunil and I are both world travelers with immigrant parents and homes that we rarely visit—my father is from Iraq and my mother is from Argentina, and Sunil is the son of a Sri Lankan father and a mother from Montana. Neither of us is very nested in any one place, but when our paths do cross there is always a lot to talk about. We spoke over the phone earlier this month.
VICE: This is a really good book. There are so many things that work. Each character is clearly defined and the collision of their lives feels inevitable and yet surprising until the last page. There is velocity and tension and compassion and a bit of schooling all woven in.
Sunil Yapa: Thanks!
So I can't help wondering if you know the exact percentage increase in the size of your ego since going on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
I do. Zero.
I don't believe it.
The irony, and you know this because you know me, is that I have social anxiety. So when I heard I was going to be on TV, it was both: "That's incredible," and "Oh, shit, that's absolutely terrifying." But it was fun. Seth made me feel really comfortable. And we joked about my dad coming to the US on the same plane as the Beatles for their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
My pops is the original storyteller in the family. He swears it's true.
Hamida Ghafour in the Toronto Star said, "Those who came of age politically in the 1990s when anti-globalization slogans and lumberjack shirts were all the rage, need generation-defining books and Sunil Yapa's debut novel should be among them." I agree. I need reminders. I like how you brought back Mumia Abu-Jamal and the tree sit-ins.
I think because of the 24-hour news cycle we instantly forget what happens. Seattle was such a pivotal moment and people forgot about it five minutes after seeing it on TV. So part of my intention in writing this book was to unpack the sound bite: "Violent Protesters Protest with Police."
Which is still sadly relevant.
When did the American police start looking like an occupying military force? I've been watching footage from Ferguson and it's crazy, you see American police rolling into the street in tanks. I wanted to get into the cops' story, too.
You admit that it's not based all on fact. You conflated things, you added things.
The actual protest happened over five days and I think that almost everything that happens in the book up until two-thirds of the way through all happened at some point during the protest.
It was November 1999, a month before the millennium. I love that moment in history. It's the end of the American century.
When I was starting to research this, I saw a photo of a woman, long red hair, on her knees on the pavement surrounded by protesters, blood coming from her head, with her hands clasped together in prayer or in pain. And I thought, What has changed in the world that a white woman is willing to go to a protest and get beat, not to expand her own rights but to expand the rights of a kid making shoes in Bangladesh ?
Do you think the woman with red hair is a hero?
I didn't have the courage to go to the protests myself. I had been arrested already and I didn't want to go to jail again and I wasn't willing to go. So I have a lot of respect and admiration for people who were willing to go and be tear-gassed and arrested. So in that sense I think it's heroic.
But I also see a lot of Americans who think, We made the problem in the third world so we have to solve it. I think that's condescending and patriarchal in a way, especially without a full understanding of what, for example, Sri Lanka's role in the global economy might be. There is an American sense of "Let's save the world," and that's sweet. I admire that. But it's also naïve and unheroic and problematic in a lot of ways too.
What did you think about Occupy?
I went down to Zuccotti Park a couple of times and was there when everyone went out to Times Square. But there wasn't really anything to occupy. There was no visible enemy—it's not like the one percent was there mocking us so we could throw tomatoes at them—so people started to get into fights with the cops. And I was like, we are the 99 percent, so are they! Why are we antagonizing them? I'm not a fan nor a hater of the NYPD, but don't start a needless fight with the cops. That isn't what this is about. So I left.
On some level the cops aren't really the problem. We are all part of this huge global economic capitalistic system. Let's be aware of that.
So true. That's why I like the Biotic Baking Brigade, who protest by slapping pies in the faces of conservatives like Ann Coulter. That was one of my favorite forms of protest.
Love those guys! Love it when protest has a sense of biting humor.
"If there is a connection between the Seattle protests in '99 and Ferguson and Baltimore, I would say when people in a democracy feel powerless they take to the streets."
I went to the march for climate change in New York and like you say, it feels good sometimes to be in a gigantic crowd. But I didn't really feel like we were all there for the same reasons. If anything, maybe, when the oceans are rising and hell is breaking loose, people will look back and say "remember when those millions of people marched that day? I guess they knew it was coming."
People talk about revolution with a capital R. I'm all about a million little revolutions. That's how I see change. There is nothing inherently wrong with capitalism. Marx might disagree. I was just reading about Buddhist economics.
There is no such thing as Buddhist economics.
It comes from Schumacher's book Small Is Beautiful. He has a whole chapter on Buddhist economics.
But it's not in the sutras is all I'm saying.
Ha. No, I don't think so. I think we can live with capitalism. But we need to take some of our power back from the politicians. I mean what is a protest, what are we doing?
I don't know. I really think half the time people are there for social reasons. They want to hang out with people who have similar—
That's something. That's a big deal. Not feeling alienated hanging out with people. If you just sit at home and watch the news you're going to shoot yourself. So you go out on the street. I think that's actually legitimate. Two, I think it's also maybe like, you look at Ferguson and Baltimore it's an expression of grief.
If there is a connection between the Seattle protests in '99 and Ferguson and Baltimore, I would say when people in a democracy feel powerless they take to the streets. And I would say it's a desperate measure. It's an expression of loss, a demand for justice.
The other thing they have in common is how quickly people forgot. So what's the next thing you are going to write about to remind us?
Ha. It's not my job to remind people. I write about things that I feel really moved or connected to. So I might write a book about dogs, you know?
Noa Jones writes fiction and creative nonfiction.
Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is on sale in bookstores and online now.