The Rumpus Interview with Sunil Yapa
Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, is an emotional whirlwind of a book. Set amid the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, it’s a fast-paced and absorbing story rooted in conflict and humanity. It begins on the morning of the demonstrations in Seattle, where a nineteen-year-old runaway named Victor looks at the crowd with one goal: to sell enough weed to buy a plane ticket out of the city that his father, whom he hasn’t seen for three years, is the police chief of. What follows is a day-long story that spins into chaos, told from the vantage points of several narrators, including from the protestors to the cops to a Sri Lankan delegate. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist pays tribute to the lines that divide us and the compassion that blurs them. The harmony of discord, of empathy and opposition, makes this book sing.
On a very warm day in December, I sat down with Sunil in Hell’s Kitchen and talked about globalization, empathy, and what to do when you lose the first draft of your novel in a beach house in Chile.
The Rumpus: What made you decide to write about the 1999 WTO protests?
Sunil Yapa: My dad is a Marxist professor of geography, and I grew up in that milieu in the sense that my bedtime stories were about development economics. Instead of Monopoly, we had a board game upstairs called CAPITAL with Marx on the front. I grew up with that. When the protests happened I was in college, so I knew about them when they happened in real time, but I didn’t go.
Rumpus: Were you living in Seattle then?
Yapa: No, I was in college at Penn State. It would’ve been a long trip, but I knew people who were going. I knew one of the strategies was mass arrest, and I’d spent a night in jail already, and it was not an experience I wanted to repeat. I was just a coward, honestly. Then I was casting around for ideas for a novel when I was in grad school, and Colum McCann kept killing novel ideas. I’d bring him twenty pages, and he’d be like, so sorry man, this is not gonna work.
Rumpus: That’s actually great.
Yapa: It was one of the most generous things anyone’s ever done for me, yet so heartbreaking.
Rumpus: So many teachers would say, it’s okay, keep going, see how it turns out.
Yapa: That kind of faint praise is the worst. Then you spend ten years of your life working on a project that was a stillbirth. And it’s not that they were bad ideas. They just would have been technically out of my skill, even though this one was too. Anyway, he kept killing ideas, and I came across this picture from the Seattle protests of a woman with long red hair on the pavement on her knees in a crowd. It looks like she’s praying or in pain. A guy who appears to be a stranger is tending to this huge wound on her head, and people are milling all around her. I was thinking, what would make this woman risk getting teargased, getting pepper sprayed, getting beaten, not for her own rights, but for some kid in a sweatshop making shoes in Sri Lanka, or in Bangladesh, or in Vietnam? That’s an amazing thing. I wanted to know what their story was, I wanted to think what would bring someone there, and what about the world had changed that that was something that now was important in the world.
Arundhati Roy said, “The only thing worth globalizing is dissent.” That was a very good moment of globalization where it’s not necessarily the spread of American culture, a McDonald’s in every country on earth, but the spread of compassion and empathy going global. Now we know that much about other people’s lives in other countries. What I say about the book is that empathy can be a radical act. You don’t have to pick up a rifle to be a revolutionary. Compassion for someone in another country is all of a sudden this revolutionary act. Followed by having to have the courage of your convictions and actually go out and sit in the street and face cops that look like Stormtroopers.
Rumpus: Speaking of empathy, one of the most striking images in the book for me was when Victor is watching the cops torment a fellow protestor in a really brutal way. They’re putting pepper spray in the Q-tips and running them around her eyes, holding her head between their knees, and you don’t have to go into the protestor’s head to see that as such a painful act—you just have to see Victor watching it.
Yapa: That’s unfortunately something that really happened. A lot of the techniques on both sides were developed in the protests for Save the Redwoods, like the lockboxes where they put themselves in pipes and chains. In San Bernardino County, the sheriff’s department had an incident like that. They were trying out pepper spray and seeing what would happen. The cops have a lot of technology that’s more like military-style technology, but they’re not necessarily all that familiar with some of it. There’s a story of one guy who’s laying on his back in Seattle, and a cop pepper sprays him and then opens the bottle and just dumps the rest of it on his face. And it’s like, is that even possible?
I write from the perspective of cops, and after what I just told you, you’d think that would be completely insane of me to try to do. But the cops had maybe one day of training. The protestors, the core of the protestors, had been training for six months. The cops were also wildly outnumbered. There were nine hundred cops and fifty thousand people. When I started researching, I knew right away I didn’t want the cops to be an easy villain. If the book was about empathy, then I needed as a writer to challenge myself to empathize. One of the coolest resources I found were these recordings in the city hall archives of the police radio scanners from all five days of the protest. It’s wild because you can hear how it starts out pretty calm, and by day three it’s absolute panic. People talking over each other, yelling in the background, teargas going off, the concussion grenades going off. You can hear they’re scared. Even the most basic research tells you that most of the cops didn’t have any lunch breaks, some hadn’t eaten in eighteen hours, some hadn’t peed in eighteen hours, hadn’t slept. And then I can start to understand a little bit. It’s not an apology or an excuse, but I can start to empathize with being in that situation.
Rumpus: I think you get that across really well. There’s three cops, but they all have completely different ideas about the protest. They’re all looking at it very differently, even from within their own group.
Yapa: That’s a great point. I think it’s really important that it’s not that I’m writing about cops, but I’m writing about these three specific characters who are police officers. It’s about them. Entering a mindset of Julia for example, she has family in Guatemala and she’s missing them and that’s a big part of her personality. I can use my experience for that. I’ve never been a police officer, but I’ve missed family. I know what it’s like to have family in other countries.
Rumpus: The characters are fictional, but I imagine you did a lot of research, right? What was your process with that?
Yapa: I did as much research as possible, and then tried to forget it all. Actually I wrote about a hundred pages, and then I realized I didn’t know enough, then went and did tons of research. I was lucky because I was living with an activist. He was one of my friends from the Hunter grad program, and he had all these zines from the activist community. You would never find that in a library or an archive. Those zines and his stories were a huge resource. I interviewed people. There’s a huge archive of material from the WTO history project at the University of Washington, around twenty boxes of stuff: people sent in firsthand accounts, there was a box full of VHS tapes from the day, and I like listening to recordings so I found those police scanners. There was also two people walking around with mics just recording themselves. And I love writing from photographs. When you write about a historical event that’s only, what, fifteen years ago, there’s a lot of resources.
Rumpus: But a lot of the media coverage that day was pretty skewed.
Yapa: I think so, yeah. That was actually one of my intentions in the book, to unpack the sound bite that we saw on TV. We see protests on TV, and it’s basically the same headline: “Violent Protests Clash with Police.” I really wanted to unpack that into what people’s stories were. It’s so much more complicated for the cops; they aren’t just faceless monsters. It’s so much more complicated for the people; they’re not just black-hooded anarchists. And it’s more complicated for the delegates; they’re not just evil masterminds who want to take over the world. Everyone in that book thinks they’re doing the right thing, even though they’re doing the exact opposite thing!
Rumpus: Right. And there’s no mention of the media in the book, though it’s a big part of what happened.
Yapa: It was a huge part. Honestly in the first draft, the media was a pretty big part of it. It was one of the last things I cut. It was a really interesting moment because it was the birth of Indie Media, and Seattle was one of the first places that got organized. It really became a moment. It was the beginning of a real people-based media, ground-based media. The whole world was watching, was one of the chants. And the whole world really was watching. And I think for a lot of protests before this, no one was watching because there was no one there to film it or to uncover it. Obviously it’s totally relevant with what’s going on now. I think that’s incredibly important, but when I started writing the media stuff, from a technical standpoint, it was way too on-the-nose. It was too much telling the reader what I thought about stuff. It just didn’t work. The other perspective that isn’t there much is the black bloc. That was a very small group of people who were very committed to more radical direct action in the sense of stuff like breaking bank windows, but specifically targeted banks, investing in Shell oil or contributing to massive rainforest destruction in the Amazon. They knew what they were doing. It’s really interesting because it’s like ten or twenty people who broke windows, and that’s the justification for the whole police response.
Rumpus: And that’s what people remember.
Yapa: And that’s what people remember! And it’s such a tiny part of the protest.
Rumpus: The different perspectives are so important in this book—there are seven main characters, which is hard to pull off, but works really well here. Did you set out to tell the story through this many lenses?
Yapa: Well, the first draft of this was six hundred and five pages and had probably sixty characters.
Yapa: Probably, I don’t know the exact number. The idea was that it just followed characters—some people came back, most people didn’t come back. Madeline Albright was in it, Clinton was in it. The riot was the main character. You didn’t stay with any one person. When I finished that, I was living in a beach house in Chile. I didn’t back it up, and my laptop got stolen, and I lost that draft.
Rumpus: I didn’t realize you’d lost such a different draft!
Yapa: So different. I was obviously devastated, but it was a blessing. Three months later, when I went back to it, I was bored with rewriting it. I wasn’t interested in that—rewriting a book with your notes was so depressing. It’s just not creative. I got really lucky to be able to reexamine it. I don’t know why it took me so long—I think I’m pretty smart, and I had gone to University of Houston, I had gone to London Film School, I had gone to Hunter College, so I had a lot of people teaching me, and I still hadn’t figured out that fiction’s about characters. We’re moved by movies and books because we care about a character. It took me four years and a lost manuscript to understand that.
Rumpus: Were the same characters in the earlier book?
Yapa: There were cops, but they weren’t nearly as fully formed. They were more sketches of cops than they were people. King was in it, but I think she’s really the only one. I started over, and in the working draft for most of those years there were ten characters. And then even that I was too many, so I cut it to seven. I love that you say they’re diverse voices, because I feel like they’re all sort of my voice. I think the reason it feels honest if it does is because there’s some part of me in all of them. The chief has two things going on: he’s trying to control the city and wondering how much violence he can apply or not apply. How far is he willing to go to stay in control? I understand that; I’ve been in that position, not in a riot, but I’ve been there. Victor walks into the protest and in a very impulsive moment puts himself in the most dangerous, vulnerable position, which is in lockdown at the heart of the protest. No one’s trained him—he totally jumped into the deep end. And I can relate to that, too! I’ve done a lot of stupid things on impulse. Maybe not that brave, but you do it and then you have to deal with the real consequences. Like setting out to write a book about sixty characters.
Rumpus: In fiction there’s always some part of you in the characters you write, but it’s nice that there’s no character in here that’s clearly you.
Yapa: My intention was to write outside of my experience, but it’s amazing how the emotional details of your life enter into all of the characters. You draw from your own experience, and substitute it in different ways. I have to say I really kind of sympathize with Victor. I feel him. He’s the most on the surface like me. At nineteen I lived in Seattle, with hair down to my ass, and I smoked a lot of weed. He’s traveled the world, he’s overwhelmed, he’s super angry at his dad, and I feel that haze.
Now I’m kind of in between being nineteen and being a father, so I just want to give Victor a big hug and tell him dude, I get it. I get being that pissed off. It’s gonna be alright, not everything’s bullshit. You will find things that matter. I really feel for him. And the dilemma with his dad, I feel for both of them. Here’s this police chief who has an adopted black son and he’s trying to relate to him just as his son, and racism keeps getting in the way. He has to get outside of his own comfort zone to try to understand his own son. I can understand that too, thinking about my parents. When you get a little older, you stop being angry at your folks and see they’re flawed humans like everybody else. It must’ve been really hard for them to try and figure out what was going on with me.
Rumpus: You’ve traveled and lived abroad many places. How do you think that has affected your writing?
Yapa: Recently I recently sat down and counted, and I wrote this book in seventeen different houses, which is kind of nuts. Seventeen different kitchen tables. And of course that’s filtered into the book. The basic fact at the heart of this book is just how much we have materially in this country and how much some people don’t have in other countries. Without a moral judgment on why that is, it’s just that it’s like living on different planets. After I lost that draft and decided to write again, I was living in Guatemala. I was visiting my friend who’s a painter who was doing work with the Mayans up in the mountains. We took her dog for a walk and were sitting on the stoop of a little corner store, on the edge of town right before it turns into fields. I was drinking a beer and talking to the shop owner, and little kids kept coming up and buying one candle. Eventually I asked, what’s the deal with the one candle? And he told me they didn’t have electricity, that one candle was their electricity. The next time I was on that same walk, it was already dark and I could see in the shacks, which were made of salvaged wood and tin, one room for a whole family, this one little candle light. I don’t know why that image moved me so much, and to be honest it’s not a sense of first-world guilt, it was just this human moment of holy shit, it’s not even the same planet.
Rumpus: So you wrote the book while you were traveling then, you’ve written it all over?
Yapa: It wasn’t really that I was traveling, I was living abroad. I worked as a traveling salesman. When I graduated college, I found a job selling posters to college kids. This company started by four hippies would give me and my buddies the biggest truck you could drive without a commercial license and we’d go around to colleges the first week of the semester and sell them. We’d work for about two months and we didn’t make enough money to live in the States on, but I’d also stumbled into traveling at the same time. I knew if I took my money and went to Chile, I could live all year and just write. It wouldn’t matter who I sent it to or who publishes it. I probably have six hundred pages of stories that I’ve never sent anyone. The first seven years of me being a serious writer were just me selling posters for two months and then going to Chile. I went and lived in Chile three times, lived in Argentina, lived in India.
Rumpus: Where did getting your MFA figure into it?
Yapa: My experience at MFAs was a very crooked road. I was writing about five years on my own, and I needed to go get some teachers. The first experience I ever had in a workshop was at VONA/Voices, the workshop for writers of color. I did it in San Francisco and it was an incredible experience. I studied with Chitra Divakaruni, and she encouraged me to apply to the University of Houston. It was a highly-ranked, incredible MFA program, and I went there for a year. It was in a transition period so eight faculty members left between when I accepted and when I got there. It was kind of a tough year. Houston was very much a literature program, and not reading for writers exactly, but reading from a critical perspective. I realized right away I didn’t want to do that. I know so many great writers who come out of there, I still have great friends from there, but I realized what kind of writer I was, and I don’t know, I love Faulkner, but I don’t wanna get into the themes of As I Lay Dying. I wanted to learn how to do multiple narrators. So I did a year there, I dropped out, I ended up at the London Film School for the summer. Then I went to New York State Summer Writers Institute and I met someone from Hunter. I’d never heard of Hunter. It was not really known at the time. Everything I said that I wanted in a program, she would tell me that’s what they had in Hunter. I remember getting in touch with Colum before I’d even applied. I’d just come back from India; I was sitting on my backpack outside his office door. He shows up and he says, you’ve got five minutes. And we talked for two hours. I knew right away that was where I was going.
I only applied to Hunter, I got in, and those guys, Peter Carey, Colum McCann, Claire Messud, Nathan Englander, all so talented, but with no ego. We all know talented writers don’t always apply to being good teachers, but they were incredible teachers. Peter Carey, who’s won the Booker Prize twice, a living legend—we were all too scared to go into his office hours. Once I remember in his office I said, “Peter, I don’t know how to write scenes.” He thought I was kidding. When he realized I was serious, he gave this big sigh, and pulled around the chair from the other side to sit next to me. He took out a piece of paper and started drawing boxes, here’s the scene, here’s the character. Character A enters and wants something, and we got into it. They were so generous with their time.
I had a scene in one of my stories, about a really angry Sri Lankan kid, which I used to write about a lot, who robbed a gas station and then stepped outside and threw up from the stress. I’ll always remember Peter’s note in the margin was “Count the carrots,” in the vomit. Give me details. Colum would claim he can’t teach you plot or character, but what he can teach is perseverance, fire, being hungry, passion. He doesn’t say this, but I think also permission to write outside your own experience and to write toward what you want to know. It’s hard to say how that comes out in your writing, but for me losing a manuscript, having it bubble up in my brain again, and having whatever it takes to write it again, that’s Colum. That’s perseverance, fire, passion, guts, and I think that had a lot to do with him. We all go to grad school wanting to learn craft, but also wanting models of how to live as a writer in the world. Seeing Colum win the National Book Award and responding with no ego, responding by sharing so much of himself to us, to anyone who needed help with writing, that showed me that’s how I want to be too.
Author photograph © Beowulf Sheehan.