'Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist': From the 1999 WTO protests, a springboard for family drama
February 28, 2016 12:00 AM
"Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist," by Sunil Yapa
By Wendeline O. Wright
As the World Trade Organization convened in Seattle in November of 1999, anti-globalization activists also gathered to protest the proceedings by marching in the streets and shutting down intersections. These tactics were intended to draw attention to the trade negotiations of the WTO and their effect on fair trade. When a small group of protesters began vandalizing property and taunting police, the event turned violent as the Seattle police found themselves outnumbered and the protesters found themselves outgunned.
"YOUR HEART IS A MUSCLE THE SIZE OF A FIST"
By Sunil Yapa Lee Bourdreax Books ($26).
This incident is the subject of Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, “Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist.” Using fictional characters to explore the motivations of the protesters, the police, and the participants of the WTO’s meeting, Mr. Yapa delivers an urgent, poetic allegory that is especially relevant to modern protests concerning the connection between race and police brutality in the United States.
Although the novel uses the point of view of multiple characters, the heart of the book is Victor, a 19-year-old black man who is returning to Seattle after drifting around the world in the three years since his mother’s death. His plan — to sell enough marijuana at the protest to finance a plane ticket to an undetermined destination — is complicated by his relationship, or lack thereof, with his white stepfather, who happens to be the chief of the Seattle police.
Victor’s plans quickly go awry, and he finds himself pulled into a group of activists attempting to shut down the WTO’s meeting, which he volunteers to participate in to his own surprise. Meanwhile, his stepfather wrestles with Victor’s unexpected return to Seattle while watching the growing protest with unease.
Once the protests erupt into violence, the novel’s humming sense of tension pivots into a story told with brute force. Moving from the characters’ interior monologues and flashbacks, the plot begins to unfold with a new urgency as the officers fire tear gas into the crowds and chaos ensues. One memorable sequence has Victor watching as a fellow protester is repeatedly pepper-sprayed in her mouth and eyes by police, and Mr. Yapa’s ability to imbue the scene with awestruck horror results in an incredibly effective portrayal of the way wanton use of “non-lethal” weapons can escalate confrontations and enable cruelty.
“Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” isn’t a particularly subtle book, but then allegories usually aren’t. Using Victor and his stepfather as stand-ins for the divide between black and white Americans feels forced and reductive — particularly when the novel veers towards sentimentality, as if the racial divide in this country could be solved if we all just loved each other a little more. Characters exist to flesh out the competing interests of those involved in the violence, so that the attempt to make conflicting points of view easy to understand results in a lack of emotional engagement with these characters because they are clearly just stand-ins for a particular ideology.
The clarity of the ideology of Mr. Yapa’s book is both its strength and its weakness, depending entirely on the reader’s pre-existing sympathies. As the U.S. faces long-overdue confrontations over racism and its role in the police’s use of force, this novel clearly has a prevailing sense of who was right and who was wrong in the 1999 protests, and it works hard to draw parallels between those protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
As a result, the readers’ personal points of view — particularly when it comes to policing tactics — is going to strongly inform their reactions to the story. Mr. Yapa’s novel won’t change the world, but by underlining the all-too-familiar intersection of racism and police brutality, he reminds the reader than until we, as a country, are ready to face these issues head-on, they will never be resolved.
Wendeline O. Wright is a writer and editor living in Pittsburgh.
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