The protest surrounding the 1999 Seattle meeting of ministers from the World Trade Organization is a tragic event that raised awareness of the anti-globalization movement. Thousands of protesters blocked the streets leading up to where the meetings were due to take place. They faced serious police opposition as authorities forcefully tried to disperse the crowds using tear-gas and pepper spray while making many arrests of protestors and innocent bystanders alike. It’s truly shocking watching videos of policemen lifting the scarves covering protestors’ heads and spraying toxins directly into their faces. The complexity of this incident is heightened by the wide range of groups involved in the protest, but most were motivated by agendas involving fair labour policies, anti-capitalism and environmentalism. Author Sunil Yapa brings this clash to life in his novel “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” which is a dramatic depiction of this November day involving fictional characters of the Chief of Police, his estranged biracial son who becomes a part of the protests and several people involved in various sides of the conflict. He inserts individual stories and histories into this landmark event which has often been obfuscated by the confusing array of issues surrounding it. In doing so, he creates a poetically-charged and energetic tale that raises meaningful questions about our individual responsibilities as global citizens.
This novel raised a lot of personal feelings for me as it prompted me to wonder about my own stance as a citizen. In my late teenage years I spent a lot of time reading about and researching intentional communities and spent some time on one such place in Virginia. I was eager to strive towards a communal level of self-sufficiency while continuing to be an active part of society but not submitting to the trappings of a capitalist lifestyle where we often buy products that were produced by underpaid labourers in foreign countries or items that were produced in a way that overtaxes the environment. But, like most people, I got so caught up in getting a job and making a home with my partner to continue taking such a radical stance on the way I live within society. Sometimes I wonder how complacent this makes me and if I should take a more active role in living in a way which doesn’t have larger unseen negative effects upon the world.
This novel prompted me to think about how so many people are trapped in this condition. Also, when there are major clashes like this specific example everyone brings their own emotional baggage and historical issues with them. So the protest wasn’t just a conflict of two opposing ideologies about how society should be run, but is a wide-scale intermingling of emotionally-charged points of view. The characters include a wayward young man who has spent three years travelling the world, a woman who used to be involved in eco-terrorism, a police officer who had been involved in the LA riots and an economist from Sri Lanka trying to get a deal signed off. Yapa writes about them in a way which brings the weight of their pasts into the present. At times this does come across in a way which is slightly clichéd, but overall it is moving and effective.
One part which particularly struck me was when a character named Victor recalls his deceased mother and the books she left behind. Yapa describes how “He schooled himself from the boxes. He liked to read… liked the idea that he had inherited more than his dark skin and dark hair from the woman who disappeared… And for a moment the loneliness that was always with him left him alone.” I found it so emotional how this showed the way this legacy of knowledge can be passed down and that he could be comforted by the same words and ideas which his mother found so inspiring. This makes what subsequently happens to these books all the more shocking and upsetting.
“Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” ultimately traces the line where our concepts and ideals about what we want our society to be are tested with our bodies and physical safety. The protestors at this event put themselves in danger and unfortunately suffered from a tragic mishandling of public order. This novel is a testament to that bravery and gives a dynamic view on how we can better understand these clashes which will continue to occur in times of political instability. I'd particularly recommend this novel to anyone who appreciated Ryan Gattis' novel "All Involved".