State College native’s debut novel resurrects forgotten protest

Breaking the mold of our current polarized political climate, Sunil Yapa’s debut novel “Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” examines a controversial moment in American history from multiple angles, reminding readers of the value that comes from trying to understand one another.

Yapa’s novel is set during the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization Protests and documents the disruption of civil disobedience, while also exploring the interpersonal bonding that occurs when people come together to express their opinions. Assuming the perspective of seven characters throughout the novel, Yapa constructs characters who humanize the concerns and beliefs of a diverse set of individuals.

The book opens from the perspective of Victor, a biracial teenager who ran away from home and backpacked around the world. Victor’s primarily goal, upon first arriving at the demonstrations, is to sell marijuana to the protesters. However, he finds himself rallying to the activists’ cause and volunteering to be placed in lockdown, or in other words, a circle of protesters chained together: one of the most critical positions of the protest. Here, Victor meets King and John Henry, two other activists whose perspectives the narration adopts in other points of the novel.

On the opposite side of the conflict, Yapa investigates the thoughts of two police officers and the Seattle police chief, Bishop, who happens to be Victor’s estranged father. In this way, rather dramatically, Yapa frames the protests as a — albeit violent — reunification of father and son. Similarly, Yapa’s ability to jump between these various perspectives helps paint a more comprehensive picture of the protest. Why are 60,000 people here in the first place? Why do the police resort to violence?

Perhaps the most interesting character perspective Yapa assumes is that of Dr. Wickramsinghe, a Sri Lankan delegate to the WTO who is trying to attend the very meeting the protestors are trying to prevent from happening. For Dr. Wickramsinge, Sri Lanka’s entry into the WTO means the possibility of rejuvenation for a country damaged by civil war. His presence in the novel is a fresh perspective on the issue of globalization. It pivots away from the primary American concern, structural unemployment, and humanizes the concerns of people in the developing world, and as some would argue, their exploitation.

Although set within a fictionalized account of events that occurred nearly twenty years ago, “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” conjures up questions that seem especially relevant today, such as those regarding police brutality, the Transpacific Trade Partnership and the place of the United States in the international community. But as Yapa’s novel puts these questions forward, there is one underlying theme that bundles the seven perspectives together: the revolutionary power of empathy.

Philip Chwistek is a Penn State student and an intern for the Center for American Literary Studies.