Battle of Seattle revisited
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.