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In Seattle on the morning of November 30, 1999, thousands of anti-globalization activists engaged in non-violent civil disobedience to prevent the World Trade Organization (WTO) from meeting to launch a new round of free-trade negotiations. The audaciousness of their plan — shut down an entire city to stop the neoliberal wheel of global injustice from turning — inspired people from across North America to come to Seattle, including a group of about a dozen of us from Calgary.
Though he didn’t attend the protests — a night in jail as a teenager made him wary of risking arrest –they left a mark on Sunil Yapa; the first-time novelist chose to set his lyrical debut, Your Heart is a Muscle The Size of a Fist, during the first chaotic day of the “Battle of Seattle.”
“I saw a photo of a white woman in the street, bleeding from the head, being tended to by a stranger,” Yapa told me in a recent phone interview. “She wasn’t there to win her own rights. She was there quite possibly to protect the rights of a worker she’d never meet, in a shoe factory in Vietnam. I’m aware that my clothes are made in a sweatshop, but most of us don’t go from that to taking action. I was interested in what those obstacles to action are, and what pulls us to act.”
The 50,000 activists who marched in Seattle were diverse in political perspectives, if not exactly representative in terms of race or place of origin. Yapa captures that discordant chorus through the voices of several characters.
There’s Victor, the bi-racial drifter caught up in the protests; King, the non-violent activist with a propensity for rage; Police Chief Bishop, Victor’s estranged step-father; and Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, the Sri Lankan Minister of Finance desperate to get to the meetings to secure his country’s entrance to the WTO; not to mention Julia and Park, two members of the Seattle Police force, and John Henry, a seasoned activist and King’s lover.
“One voice to represent all those perspectives wasn’t enough,” explained Yapa, who was born into a bi-cultural household — his mother is from Montana, his dad is a Marxist professor from Sri Lanka. “I grew up with multiple perspectives played out in conversation daily, and I wanted readers to have that experience.”
It’s a risky move: without a clear protagonist the narrative could become muddled, the story stretched too thin. Thankfully, Yapa works to imbue each of his characters with depth, to varying degrees of success.
Victor and his stepfather Chief Bishop are two that stand out. After his mother (Bishop’s wife) died, Victor left Seattle, criss-crossing the globe, searching for meaning only to end up back in Seattle on the street. Bishop is distracted, trying to keep a handle on the protest and the more aggressive members of his force, even as his homeless stepson is never far from his mind. The relationship between the two is charged, and there’s little doubt in the reader’s mind they will meet on the street by the novel’s end.
Before that fated confrontation occurs there is much ground to cover: the direct action “shut-down,” planned to target specific intersections throughout the city. Disparate marches by environmentalists, NGOs, unions and black bloc anarchists. And the police, firing tear gas and attacking activists with pepper spray and brute force.
For the most part Yapa keeps his story in line with what actually occurred, including the police violence, which began before any large-scale acts of property destruction by the black bloc. The author’s research included forays into the WTO History Project archives at the University of Washington, as well as listening to audio of the police scanner recorded during the week of protests.
“One of the most amazing things was hearing them going from bureaucratic cop-talk –then you hear the noise building behind them, chants, drums. You start to hear them get nervous,” said Yapa. “The first time I heard one of the officers on the channel get scared, I thought, that’s a human moment. I can write that.”
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, with its large cast, is full of many such vivid emotional moments, told in looping, often beautiful sentences:
“They wanted to tear down the borders, to make a leap into a kind of love that would be like living inside a new human skin, wanted to dream themselves into a life they did not yet know.
He heard them in the streets saying, ‘Another world is possible,’ and beneath his ribs broken and healed and twice broken and healed and thrice broken and healed, he shuddered and thought, God help us. We are made with hope. Here we come.”
Not unlike some commentary produced by the radical left, the unyieldingly earnest tone can occasionally get to be too much; sentiments are left feeling forced or disingenuous, characters reach for poetic epiphanies at incongruous moments.
Yet, in the final pages when it really counts, Yapa matches language and narrative perfectly.
As the novel closes on the night of November 30, the characters’ lives have been irrevocable changed. So it was for me. We left the city exhausted, our lungs burning. We were terrified, enraged and totally inspired.
Does Your Heart… manage to capture the richness and complexity of my feelings about Seattle — how and why it inspired me like no other mass protest has since? Do Yapa’s characters feel as if they could have been my friends? Did it reflect my understanding of state violence and institutionalized oppression? Not exactly, but I realize I hadn’t expected it to.
Yapa said it well when he explained his decision to merge the experience of Vietnam’s bid to enter the WTO with his plotline involving the Minister of Sri Lanka (which in reality was one of the founding members of the WTO):
“I needed to use Sri Lanka [to illustrate the similarities between colonialism and neo-liberalism] because I knew it well emotionally, as well as the facts. As much as I saw the deep obligation to get at the truth of what happened, I was also responding to the demands of the novel, the imagination. And I had to be true to the characters.”
Sunil Yapa will be appearing on April 15 in Ottawa at the Ottawa Writers Festival, on April 16 in Montreal at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival and on April 28th in Toronto with Junot Diaz at PEN Canada Ideas in Dialogue.
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