I attended my first protest a week after my 19th birthday: a die-in at Abbott Laboratories — the Chicago-based pharmaceutical company which was, at the time, threatening to withhold AIDS, arthritis, and blood pressure medications from Thailand because the Thai government had expressed the desire to produce a version of their own, less expensive, AIDS medication. I stood in a plaza outside the company’s annual shareholders meeting, wearing a hospital gown and surrounded by a small group of fellow activists, medical students, and Thai citizens, and on cue I feigned dying in the street while another activist drew a chalk outline around my body. The protest appeared just once on the local news. But I was hooked. I was going to change the world.
It is in a similar space of emerging activism that readers meet Victor, the central character in Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist, published by Lee Boudreaux Books earlier this year. The novel tells the story of just one day — the November 30, 1999 World Trade Organization protest in Seattle, Washington — as experienced by seven different characters whose impossibly disparate narratives converge on one another throughout the text, as kaleidoscopically as protesters themselves.
Yapa’s other characters, in many ways, border almost on caricature — the good cop and bad cop; the idealistic protestor and the violent revolutionary; the Sri Lankan delegate desperate for his country to gain admission into the WTO and the white, upper-middle-class activist who believes he’s attended the protest to protect countries like Sri Lanka; the well-intentioned but world-weary police chief and his radical, prodigal son. But there’s truth to them. I recognize each of these characters. I’ve known them all. And I recognize parts of myself — and the selves I used to be — in more than a few as well.
“Wearing a pair of sweatshop shoes to a sweatshop protest — well, he wanted to say, what the fuck do you think you’re wearing? I wear my Nikes and they remind me I am small and the world is large and who are you to judge me for a thing like that? The world is large and I am small.” — Sunil Yapa, Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist
And ultimately, like Yapa’s seasoned protester John Henry, and his Sri Lankan delegate Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, I had little idea what to make of a world that I found so beautiful, and loved so much, but that seemed to be on the verge of imploding with all the wrongness that existed within it.
“That they felt they had the power to do something about it. That was what made it so American. That they felt they had the power to do something — they assumed they had that power. They had been born with it — the ability to change the world — and had never questioned its existence.” — Sunil Yapa, Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist
Because ultimately, if I’m going to be honest with myself, what sustained me through my young life of protest was the anonymity. I didn’t have to be much of anything other than, as Yapa wrote: just another “high-fructose face” lost in the horde of assembly. Nobody was looking at me in particular to do anything. I could simply march and march, and chant and chant, could believe in justice and rightness so fully my heart might have burst into pieces, and as long as enough people marched and chanted and believed alongside me, we would change the world. Maybe even Tom Morello would show up.
So when I took the lessons I’d learned in protest, and tried to apply them to the work I was attempting in the communities that I believed I was protesting for, and the world failed to change, all my once-unrelenting belief came crashing down around me. Nobody had ever laid so bare for me the complex dynamics of organized direct action quite like Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist did. I was only 11 years old at the time of the 1999 WTO protest, but I’d studied it in college as the greatest example of American activism in my lifetime — something to aspire to. Yapa’s depiction — one that's idealism left room to include the realities of hypocritical protesters, uncertain activists, and confused delegates — was hardly so black-and-white.
“What if they knew what a real revolutionary was? How bloody is a real revolution. He looked around, suddenly feeling the need to sit, and saw nothing but their faces, their round wet faces staring back at him. What a violence of the spirit to not know the world.” — Sunil Yapa, Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist
Nobody had told me that loving the world was just as important — more important — than trying to fix it. And until reading Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist, I didn't know that's exactly what I'd been hoping to learn all along. In school my textbooks and professors expressed the importance of anger as a stepping stone to action, to liberation — and as both a young woman and a millennial, I hear my generation critiqued for not being angry enough about our world. But anger only works if it inspires action, and for me anger, which has never been a motivating force, only led to inaction. What Yapa’s characters all have in common, no matter how different they each may be from one another, is a desperate, sustaining love for the work that they do, and the world that they do it in. Even the bad cop.
“He heard them in the streets saying, ‘Another world is possible,’ and beneath his ribs broken and healed and twice broken and healed and thrice broken and healed, he shuddered and thought, God help us. We are mad with hope. Here we come.” — Sunil Yapa, Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist
What I should have said was: People over profit, and si se puede, and conscientious objection, and manufactured consent, and nonviolent revolution, and the water is being poisoned, and the war won’t ever end. At the very least I could have said: I'm here because this is just somewhere to stand for a little while, in a world where I have no idea where to stand. But I was nervous in front of the camera, in front of this Quechua-speaking journalist with his impossible question and his eager face, so I adjusted my bandanna, smiled, and said the first thing that came to mind: “Because this is the greatest city on Earth.” And though I sensed that I was failing the world — yet again — with such ignorant hope, damn if I believed it; if belief was enough.
Images: E. Ce Miller