A review of Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

by Brian Lampkin

In late November of 1999, one American city went to war against the world. The World Trade Organization (WTO) conference scheduled to begin on November 30 of that year in Seattle was the target for a groundswell of opposition to the machinations of the economic powers that rule the world. The reverberations of “The Battle of Seattle” are still felt 16 years later, and the lessons of the street protests are still studied by activists, police and the WTO itself.

Sri Lankan/American novelist Sunil Yapa uses the Seattle streets as the ground for Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, and he sticks close to the actual events even as he creates characters to play out the drama of the days of rage. Despite the fact that this is recent history, Yapa spent many hours in the University of Washington archives looking through boxes and boxes of material on the protests. Yapa takes the first-hand accounts and turns them into powerful writing on the typically unseen horrors of street fighting between police and protestors–or, more accurately, on the horrors of unchecked police violence.

Yapa shows what happens in the hidden corners of street protest, especially when “control” of the situation is in question. Whatever the political intent of Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, its most stunning accomplishment is its examination of fear. How do trained police respond to fear, particularly when confronted with situations outside of their expertise or control?

How do trained protestors respond to fear, especially when the brutality reaches unexpected levels of cruelty?

The novel has at its center the relationship between the Seattle Police Chief Bishop and his estranged teenage son, Victor, who has become a reluctant WTO protestor. Activists John Henry and King and cops Tim Park and Julia all intermingle and their back stories inform all of their behaviors. But I’m not really persuaded by the characters and their various motivations and psychologies. Perhaps Yapa is less interested in “character” and more interested in the political and cultural ramifications of street protest and police violence.

Not all novels need to fall into the box of literary psychology and character study. Playwright David Edgar–who has written largely on politically charged history–finds the hegemony of character a reduction of important historical events into the small motivations of individuals. We expect, even demand, that contemporary fiction center on individuals and their foibles and triumphs. But the forces of change and resistance and power must be larger than that, even as they are acted out by individuals.

I suspect that Yapa believes that the relationship between Chief Bishop and his son is more powerfully depicted than I do, and certainly other readers may find it so. Predictably, the Chief winds up watching his son get beaten nearly to death by the Seattle Police Department (I don’t think I’m giving too much away because you’ll realize that this result is likely quite early on), and it is the inevitability of this beating and the power of the description of it that I find most compelling:

“The first baton went straight to the head, a stereophonic boom that seemed to blow out his ears….The cop lifted his foot, releasing the pressure for a moment, and then smashed the boot down hard to stomp Victor’s hand where it lay on the pavement. The sound was the crush of shovel on gravel that was the bones in his hands shattering.” Yapa never shies away from the real brutality of “The Battle of Seattle.” The detailed description of the group of officers using Q-tips to intimately rub tear gas directly into the eyes of uncooperative, peaceful protestors, is physically painful to read. Yapa is not necessarily taking sides because there really is no defensible argument for the cruelty delivered. He treats individual officers with complexity and even compassion, but the group behavior in the face of a situation beyond their ability to manage is criminally vicious. Yapa also shows how police create mythologies of extreme outcomes–such as the possibility of a protestor having a weapon of mass destruction–to justify brutality.

The other side of the question is how do these protestors remain peaceful in the face of such physical force? Why doesn’t fear overwhelm political conviction? The police certainly don’t understand this behavior from the protestors. Eventually, the activist King and Victor Bishop can take no more of witnessing their compatriots’ pain and act out with dire results. Both police and protestors lose individuality and resort/rely on the power of the group to inform behavior. Both groups are palpably afraid, and Yapa’s examination of these fears and their consequences make Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist an important work.

Yapa does attempt to bring the actual World Trade Organization into the novel in the Sri Lankan WTO attendee Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe. Wickramsinghe believes in the good that might be done for Sri Lanka by its entrance into the WTO, but his naivety is soon exposed. The novel doesn’t spend much time with the details of what the protestors might actually be protesting, and Wickamsinghe’s presence is too sketchy to provide much solid information on what the WTO might be up to.

Another concern is in the description of the women in the novel. Activist King, Officer Julia and the woman on the plane next to Wickramsinghe are each described early on in the novel, and each is more beautiful than the last. King is pretty and muscled and thin “with green eyes as bright as any sea.” Julia is “the Miss November of police riots” and “like a video game knockout.” The woman on the plane is an actual model from the magazine Wickramsinghe is reading. She’s too pretty to even look at. It’s as if Kiera Knightly, Natalie Portman and Angelina Jolie have already been cast.

Another novel about the WTO protests might examine more closely the tensions that arise between peaceful protestors and protestors who are not so willing to take a beating without fighting back. This novel plays with anarchism (there’s a circle A on the cover), but doesn’t really explore the real role of anarchists in the Seattle scene. Like the police, there are individual protestors who more readily accept violence as a means of enforcing change upon a situation. But it’s no good talking about what a novel could be. Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist captures the feel of the street and effectively delivers a compassionate and at times powerful view of what a serious protest feels like.

There are very few novels that manage to do so. You’ll need to go elsewhere for a more detailed understanding of what the WTO is all about and why the protest exploded when and where it did, but one novel can only do so much. !