It’s not often that a novel takes a fraught event from the recent past, one that most of us only experienced in the flash of the cable news cycle or the static of print headlines, and imbues it with so much heart and soul that we do something we almost never do in the constant crush forward and faster—we pause and reconsider. That is the power of literature.
Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist does just this for the momentous protests of the 1999 World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Ministerial Conference, which came to be called the “Battle of Seattle.” This complex set of meetings by high-level trade officials from countries all over the world was met by an even more complicated set of protests and obstructive direct actions. Anti-capitalists, unions, environmental groups, global poverty alleviation initiatives, and others formed an unprecedented coalition. While the protests were effective in disrupting the WTO meetings and showing the power of the masses, they also resulted in violence due to infiltration by destructive anarchist elements and police brutality. Images of violence filled TV screens and newspapers at the time, rather than stories about the motivations and goals of the conference, or the tens of thousands amassing outside to protest against what they saw as harmful capitalist forces.
Yapa builds his novel around characters whose lives and livelihoods embody the ideological conflicts between the WTO and the protesters. But if issues are complex, people are more so, and even contradictory. There is King, a longtime protester, whose secret violent tendencies bubble beneath her role and rhetoric as a pacifist. And Park, the cop, who looks at the protesters and sees not idealists but dangerous elements, not unlike the ones behind the deadly Oklahoma City bombings, which left him with significant mental and physical scars. These characters—one determined to flout the law and the other determined to uphold it—erase the lines between good and bad. But they also share the common and dangerous blindness that comes from rage and the pent-up desire for retribution.
Although it is inspired by events from more than 15 years ago, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist contains, at its core, a story that could be inspired by today’s Black Lives Matter movement. It is the story of bi-racial, nineteen year old, Victor, and his white stepfather, Chief Bishop, who happens to be the Seattle Police Chief.. Their overwhelming grief over the loss of Victor’s mother, pushes them away from, rather than towards, each other. While alive, she opened their hearts, minds, and conscience to the world, acknowledging its many injustices by setting about remedying them. After she dies, Victor spirals into an abyss, seeking solace in her collection of books. Captain Bishop, at a loss for how to singlehandedly raise a black son in this world as a white man, responds to Victor’s absorption with the world of ideas by trying to bring him back to the “real” world through tough love. Victor runs away, immersing himself in the far-flung parts of the world and in issues of justice that his mother had been passionate about, in a quest to hold onto her, or at the very least, her ideals.
For three years he had wandered the world and he remembered seeing burning cars on the streets of Managua; he remembered a man in India who would not eat; he remembered a line of women in their bowler hats and long skirts standing atop a hill on the high border between Bolivia and Peru, each with a stone in their hand silently waiting for the police. Protest. Globalization. Victor carried the two lines deep within him. He saw the secret and not-so-secret threads that connected his body in the here and now to worlds three continents away.
Meanwhile, although Captain Bishop had taken pride in being a different kind of police chief, one who believed in community policing, the burden of his work and his grief over his dead wife and runaway son have stolen his idealism and left him weary and cynical. As the protests and the ensuing violence grow, Bishop retreats mentally.
He wanted to walk streets whose names he didn’t know and couldn’t pronounce. Wanted to be somewhere nobody knew his preferred brand of breakfast cereal and boxer short. Not an American, male, aged fifty-nine, widower to a wife of long patient looks, father to a disappeared son, police chief of a medium-sized American city tasked with corralling fifty thousand citizens in the street. The Chief. No, he didn’t want it… Sometimes the world was too much. Too much blood and too much violence and too much gone-out-of-your-head-crazy to include in the human experience You had to let it slip from your consideration of human life on the planet Earth… And policing? Well the days of community policing were over. The world was a bottleful of sparkling darkness and cops the ones charged with keeping the cork in while the rich shook and shook.
Confronted with violence all around her, King, the seasoned protester with a violent past, discovers that she finally understands the principles she’s been outwardly touting while inwardly struggling against for so long:
The world doesn’t give you what you want?
Burn it down.
Now, watching their bodies taking the blows, she saw it for what it was…
No, revolution was not glamorous. Revolution was a sacrifice. A desperation. The last insane leap to some future where you might have the room to breathe…
But this time, no. She would not let her rage overcome her. Neither her despair. She would not meet violence with violence. She believed in the transcendent power of love, the overwhelming force of nonviolence, and it was love that had saved her long ago when the anger had burned her to nothing. Love that showed her another person to be, love that taught her how to recognize the rage and not be consumed by it.
Some characters are not as well realized, such as Charles Wikramsinghe, the finance minister from Sri Lanka. His role in the narrative is an important one: to complicate it. Wikramsinghe is meant to embody the aspirations of third world nations, who believe that becoming a member of the WTO will save their countries’ fragile economies and perhaps their equally fragile political systems. But Wikramsinghe’s personality and past are blurry at best, making him seem more of a prop than a person. And a bizarre scene between him and a Hollywood actress during his plane journey to the conference doesn’t shed any light.
The most obscured character, the one I wanted to understand more than any other, was Victor’s mother. Here was a woman whose loss sent her son spiraling across the planet and her husband into himself. Yet, she hovers like an apparition, just out of reach, throughout the novel.
Yapa does a heroic job of journeying into the heart of this complex set of events, illustrating how they grow out of and impact the character’s lives. And while the heart may be the size of a fist, here it paradoxically seems to encompass the whole world and all of its citizens, who pulse with its every beat.