I dare you to read Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa and not get Baby, I’m an Anarchist by Against Me! stuck in your head about once per chapter.
When I first heard the description of Yapa’s debut novel I knew it would be directly in my wheelhouse. In 1999 I was listening to a lot of political pop punk music and trying to figure my political identity. I knew of the WTO protests in Seattle but did not follow them too closely. I questioned capitalism at that time but wasn’t as fully invested in taking a political stance as I am now in my mid-30s.
Look at that gorgeous cover… and dog!
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist takes the reader through the day of November 30, 1999 on the Seattle streets. I can’t recall if I have ever read a novel that takes it’s course over one day, with the exception of flashbacks from the multiple narrators. Yapa does this well through his, beautiful, almost lyrical prose. Our narrators are all people with very different reasons for being out in Seattle that day with crowds soaring to roughly 40,000 demonstrators. We start with nineteen year old runaway (and currently homeless) Victor, who plans to try to make quick cash by selling weed to the protesters. However, his plans are soon shifted as he is faced with the reality of the not only the police presence but the temperament of the crowds.
We are then met with points of view from two seasoned political activists, three police officers and one delegate from Sri Lanka who is reprehensibly beaten and jailed. Over the course of the book we see their lives weave, perhaps just for that one day, or some have a deeper connection from their past.
I found it intriguing to try to put myself in the place of the police officers especially. It was a good test in my practicing of compassion for those who I may not understand. The reader is taken through their minds as they are committing acts of brutality against peaceful demonstrators, we see how some struggle and how some are simply aggressive. We see how the demonstrators question their commitment when faced with very real consequences and how they attempt to settle that conflict within.
Victor wanted to have the strength to watch, to witness the brutality and be strong enough to tell the world about it. He wanted to witness it and by witnessing make it real, unable to be forgotten; he wanted this horror seared into every pale pink fiber of his skull.
You aren’t going to get a lot of political history from this novel, but you get an enormous amount of humanity and the struggle to make sense of our beliefs and how we turn our belief systems into action in making a better world.