Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist: A Novel by Sunil Yapa (New York: Lee Boudreaux Books, 2016. 320 pp)

Sunil Yapa is a Sri Lankan American author. He holds a BA in economic geography from Penn State University and an MFA in Fiction from Hunter College, where he was awarded the Alumni Scholarship & Welfare Fund Fellowship and was twice selected as a Hertog Fellow. He is the recipient of the 2010 Asian American Short Story Award and has received scholarships from The New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, The Norman Mailer Writers’ Center and The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Yapa’s writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Margins, Hyphen Magazine, The Tottenville Review, and others.

The Fateful Day

I was homeschooled. With a daily set curriculum, I just needed to do the work. Most days I could bust out my work in a few hours and then I’d have the rest of the day to practice guitar.

Other days, difficult concepts required more man hours.

And then on those special days, something bigger than my daily work would take priority.

On a dreary November day, the brewing protests around the World Trade Organization meetings in my hometown took center stage.

I don’t remember much press leading up to the event; I’m sure my parents kept tabs on what was happening but it probably would’ve been difficult to communicate the intricacies of global politics and capitalism to a teenager.

Nevertheless, my memory possesses a cloudy etching of the day in my mind’s internal hard drive. A day where I should’ve been studying but instead stayed glued to the television.

To this day, I don’t know much of the political milieu around the protests. Outside of a generalized abstract of “globalization,” I know not much of its importance.

Given this memory and Seattle’s importance in my own formation, Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist offers intrigue.

Balancing a Story Through Characters

Detailing that fateful day of protests, Yapa outlines the plot through 6 points of view. The central characters—more or less—emerge in Victor, a young homeless runaway who left a good education on the table to travel the world and see the evils of poverty first hand.

“Skinny Victor, who believed in his heart of hearts that most everything was bullshit, for three years he had tramped the world and still he had no idea just how it worked, how people managed daily life on this blue-green planet of slums and smog, the easy knife, the lazy blade” (4).

The other main character is Victor’s step dad, Bishop, the police chief of the Seattle Police Department, charged with keeping the peace and ensuring the WTO meetings proceed without interruption. What follows between these two characters is a Prodigal son parable set on the contentious, protest-ridden streets.

“Bishop knew his son was out there somewhere in the ragged crowd. His sweet skinny ebony son, missing since August 1996. Three years. His son who graduated from high school at age sixteen, part of an accelerated program where they jumped you grades because of your high IQ, and when you finished early you jumped your home because of your asshole dad. Or so Bishop supposed. Who knew” (26).

On Violence and Non-Violence

On the periphery, Yapa includes a handful or yin and yang characters, approaching the protests from their specific contexts.

John Henry, a nonviolent civil disobedience proponent organizes the protests believing that the peaceful reactions in the face of violence wins the narrative.

“John Henry.
Who believed that suffering was redemptive. That suffering redeems us exactly at the moment when we invite it into our lives and endure it with love” (220).

His equal and opposite, a shoot-from-the-hip officer Park, living behind the badge believing that might makes right and that any action of law enforcement brings praise to society, much like his actions when he was a first responder during the Oklahoma City bombing.

To Protest and Protect

Finally, the last balance of characters emerges in King and Ju.

King loves John Henry and wants to believe in the cause. Nevertheless, her temper gets the best of her forcing her to live life on the run after he previous protests.

And finally Ju, a calm-but-assured police officer. She believes her work will carry her above the past generations who immigrated to the United States, but she also remains wary of the badge having seen it’s problematic aspects during her time in the LAPD in the wake of the Rodney King riots.

Through all 6 of these equal and opposite points of view, the reader dives into the WTO protests. As intermissions, Yapa includes the narrative of a Sri Lankan diplomat attempting to gain access to the WTO.

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is a complicated, interweaving story exploring notions of justice, love, and family. Despite some questionable reporting on Seattle itself, the book is an energetic and entertaining read. It transports me back to that couch 17 years ago as I consumed the chaos on my televisions screen. Recommended.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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