Bat­tle of Seat­tle re­vis­ited

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Dom Amer­ena

Rev­o­lu­tions have al­ways made in­ter­est­ing back­drops for nov­els. Writ­ers are con­stantly try­ing to find the mi­cro in the macro, the hu­man in the his­tor­i­cal. Your Heart is a Mus­cle the Size of a Fist — the de­but novel by Sri Lankan-Amer­i­can writer Su­nil Yapa — drama­tises a rev­o­lu­tion that oc­curred 17 years ago and lasted a sin­gle day.

Yapa’s novel re­lates to an af­ter­noon in 1999, dur­ing the in­fa­mous anti-glob­al­i­sa­tion protests against the World Trade Or­gan­i­sa­tion, col­lo­qui­ally known as the Bat­tle of Seat­tle. Del­e­gates from around the world were meet­ing to dis­cuss mea­sures to in­crease trade be­tween de­vel­op­ing na­tions and the West. About 50,000 demon­stra­tors block­aded the ho­tel where the meet­ing was sup­posed to take place.

The WTO con­fer­ence open­ing cer­e­mony was can­celled and within days the talks broke down, while the os­ten­si­bly peace­ful protest spi­ralled out of con­trol and au­di­ences around the world were shocked by tele­vi­sion im­ages of a pan­icked, un­der­staffed po­lice force pep­per­spray­ing and beat­ing pro­test­ers.

Your Heart is told from the per­spec­tive of seven char­ac­ters: pro­test­ers, a po­lice­man, a trade min­is­ter from Sri Lanka and Vic­tor, a “half-black boy, not quite white”, who is look­ing to sell weed to the demon­stra­tors.

The short chap­ters rove be­tween the char­ac­ters’ points of view, and Yapa bril­liantly con­veys the dread as the crowd swells and the threat of vi­o­lence grows. “The day had shrunk to a morn­ing. Then an hour of street bat­tle. Then fif­teen min­utes of with­er­ing bru­tal­ity. Noon was like a for­eign coun­try.”

Writ­ing about a well-known his­tor­i­cal event in­volves re­ly­ing on a cer­tain level of as­sumed knowl­edge on the part of the reader. We know what hap­pened, yet the retelling piques our in­ter­est. As the day pro­gresses, Yapa ratch­ets up the ten­sion to a such a de­gree that the vi­o­lence comes al­most as a re­lief: “He saw a mist of blood from a riot ba­ton. Blood ex­it­ing in a fine spray from a man’s shaved scalp.”

Fun­da­men­tally, Your Heart is an ex­plo­ration of the ten­sion be­tween the ide­olo­gies of an­ar­chy and or­der, of ide­al­ism and con­ser­vatism, that led to such a bloody con­flict.

Un­for­tu­nately some of Yapa’s char­ac­ters are some­what pro­saic ci­phers, such as John Henry, an ac­tivist straight from cen­tral cast­ing, with a long red beard and a quote from Gandhi tat­tooed across his chest: “Rivers of blood may have to flow be­fore we gain our free­dom, but it must be our blood.” Henry is al­most car­toon­ish in his wor­thi­ness, prone to spout­ing hom­i­lies like: “The chant­ing, Vic­tor. It’s how we hold the fear in our mouths and trans­form it into gold.”

But most of Yapa’s char­ac­ters are more com­pro­mised, com­pli­cated cre­ations. Take King, the paci­fist with a ten­dency to­wards ran­dom acts of vi­o­lence. Or Park, the po­lice of­fi­cer whose face was dis­fig­ured sav­ing vic­tims of the Ok­la­homa City Bomb­ing. He is a seem­ingly heroic fig­ure who takes a sadis­tic plea­sure in lob­bing tear­gas can­is­ters into the crowd and beat­ing de­fence­less pro­test­ers.

Then there is Vic­tor, a black teenager who ran away from home af­ter the death of his mother, leav­ing be­hind his white father, Bishop, who just hap­pens to be the po­lice chief in charge of quelling the WTO protests. While their rather un­likely re­union makes up the emo­tional core of the novel, it is Yapa’s abil­ity to hu­man­ise the strug­gle to be­come part of the or­der or the re­sis­tance that makes Your Heart of­ten thrilling read­ing. “Suf­fer­ing is ev­ery­where.” Bishop tells his son. “I see it ev­ery day. And if you wear your heart on your sleeve, the world will just kill you cold.”

But Your Heart takes on a truly global per­spec­tive with the in­tro­duc­tion of Sri Lankan min­is­ter Charles Wick­ram­s­inghe. He sees the WTO con­fer­ence not as an in­stance of ne­olib­eral en­croach­ment, but as an op­por­tu­nity for his coun­try to lift it­self out of poverty.

Here Yapa is able to skewer the idea that th­ese priv­i­leged Amer­i­cans have the right to protest “on be­half” of the smaller na­tions hop­ing to be­come part of “the bright new age of the global econ­omy”.

Wick­ram­s­inghe com­pares the pro­test­ers to the par­ti­sans fight­ing in the civil war that had rav­aged his na­tion for the pre­vi­ous 30 years: “What if they knew what a real revo­lu­tion­ary was?” he thinks. “How bloody is a real rev­o­lu­tion.”

While Your Heart is in a sense a his­tor­i­cal novel, it is es­pe­cially rel­e­vant con­sid­er­ing the re­cent mass ap­peal of dis­rup­tive move­ments such as Black Lives Mat­ter and Oc­cupy Wall Street.

Though the ti­tle — which is de­rived from a slo­gan pop­u­lar with pro­test­ers at the time — is cer­tainly un­wieldy, it neatly en­cap­su­lates the vi­tal en­ergy un­der­pin­ning Yapa’s novel. Your Heart is a Mus­cle the Size of a Fist en­treats its read­ers to think and to feel in equal mea­sure, to con­sider the lives of oth­ers, and the sys­tems of power and priv­i­lege that have sculpted the de­vel­oped world and de­vel­op­ing world, and for that it should be ap­plauded.

is a writer and critic.

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