In 1999 — before the September 11 attacks, the War on Terror, the new anti-war movement, the Obama campaign, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders rallies — the focal point of American (and often worldwide) activism was corporate globalization. Protesters targeted sweatshops, labor exploitation, agreements like NAFTA and organizations like the World Trade Organization and the IMF which facilitated the capitalist “race to the bottom” worldwide. The movement was huge, formidable and well-organized, and it won its most decisive PR moment during the 1999 “Battle in Seattle,” a massive convergence of protest groups that effectively shut down a WTO meeting, at least temporarily.
That day in Seattle, unions and tree-sitters, teachers and anarchists, came together in coalition for a series of traffic-blocking direct actions. As the protests continued, police brutality and targeted anarchist window-smashing against corporate outposts drew the world’s eyes to the Seattle streets. This in turn forced the media to address the question of why anyone would be against globalization or the WTO to begin with. It was a messaging win for the protesters, even if they didn’t stop the sinister tide they were protesting.
But violence, even if it’s not murder — and even if it’s drawn out by nonviolent resistance — creates a kind of loss too, a necessary loss. In his debut novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Sunil Yapa addresses the many emotional chambers found within social protests, including that loss. The novel spends the day of those fateful WTO protests roving from character to character — both in the present and in flashbacks — as tension builds in the streets. We spend time with three cops, including the Chief of Police, whose anger towards the protesters — even the impulse to let loose their batons and pepper spray — is rendered with artistic, if not political, sympathy. Two protest leaders, named John Henry and King, are both committed to nonviolence — but the latter marches with a violent secret in her past, trying to stand up for personal and political truths in the face of pressure and fear. Meanwhile, a Sri Lankan diplomat tries to navigate the throng on his way to what he hopes will be the most important meeting of his career.
Among that throng is the story’s heart: the white police chief’s dark-skinned son, Victor, who ran away from home years earlier after the death of his mom. He’s there to sell weed to the protesters but finds himself drawn into the action, the sense of purpose that he sees all around. And perhaps he’s drawn to his dad, in a strange way. Victor and his father’s very shared grief and anger over the woman they’ve both lost, who connected them, brings the rage of the masses home, literally. We wait and wait for their inevitable meeting as chaos mounts in the streets and they’re both pushed towards its centers.
The question of whether Victor, having joined the protests, will join in the protesters’ chant is drawn out and becomes one of the central set-pieces of the climactic sequence. Even if I didn’t find myself riveted by the novel, I would have been eternally grateful to Yapa for making such a dilemma central to his dramatic arc. This strain is realistic; many people agree with protests but find themselves unable to join group chants, which can be liberating in their message nevertheless feel disconcertingly compulsory, almost fascist. Other questions that hang in the balance include: will King will run away in fear, scared that a routine protest arrest will unearth her dark past? Will she smash a bank window that calls to her? (“The bank window was a mirror and in the mirror she saw the eyes of a coward. She hefted the weight of the crowbar.”) Will Bishop will keep his commitment to community policing or cave to pressure from the mayor to clear the streets? How will the mostly white protesters react when they find a be-suited diplomat of color in their midst?
Why shouldn’t these be the kinds of tensions that concern literature? Sit through a single organizing meeting for a social cause and you can easily see both the challenge and the appeal of fictionalizing, or dramatizing, the players and the game. Underneath the patience-trying haggling over strategy and consensus-building (I cheered when consensus came up in the novel) and the ideological bluster lies the stuff that artists live to mine from their surroundings: egos, passions, awareness of the greater world in conflict with immediate human needs. Speaking of conflict, protest movements have them aplenty: between working with the system and remaining outside it, between those with privilege and those with nothing to lose, between violence and nonviolence, cooperation and confrontation.
It’s long been surprising that so much literature and narrative about protests ignores the intricacies of this subject, treating it as more of a milieu or background for drama than as something far more fertile. For instance, Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens chronicled the lives of three generations of dedicated leftists, often quite movingly, without spending time delving into the whys of their various passions. While reading, I wondered, did they argue about whether to support the communists or the socialists? What inspired them to dedicate their existences to one particular cause or another? Perhaps when writers face social protest movement, the urge for satire is so great (what’s more satire-worthy than a drum circle or a chant?) that it can be difficult to balance the authorial desire for pointed dissection with another desire to explore a picketer’s heart and find genuine rage at injustice, as well as personal grief, within.
What’s so remarkable about this novel, then, is that even in the midst of navigating two levels of drama — interpersonal and situational — Yapa also keeps his pen trained on the moral issue at stake. While under assault, choked by teargas and rained on by rubber bullets, Victor recalls joining a farmworker’s protest and trying, in his mind, to explain to his father — nearby, trying to clear protesters — why he did it: “What we get used to. Do you understand?” he asks. “What we require of others so that we may live our lives of easy convenience.”
Your Heart is a Muscle The Size of a Fist is the rare contemporary novel about protest that has the courage to side with the protester — but does so skillfully enough to maintain its literary authority. In a moment when protests on campuses and in cities are occupying so much of the national discussion, one hopes that other novelists will follow Yapa’s lead.