Empathy is a Radical Act: Sunil Yapa on Making Change through Fiction

Yapa Side By Side crop

Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, takes on the idealism and chaotic reality of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, through the eyes of a cast of characters who range from passionate activists to the police who find themselves arrayed against them to a diplomat who finds himself caught up in the unfolding drama on the streets. In our pages Liesl Schillinger joined a chorus of critical praise for the book, calling it a “coruscating, conscience-rousing novel” that subjects “history’s police log to the higher law of the writer’s vision.”

Last week, Sunil Yapa sat down in front of a rapt audience at Barnes & Noble’s Upper East Side Manhattan store to talk about Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist (and, along the way, to discuss its arresting title) with his former teacher at Hunter College, award-winning novelist Colum McCann. The following exchange is excerpted from their conversation.

 

Colum McCann: How does it feel?

Sunil Yapa: Overwhelming. It’s great. I feel very happy. Six years in the making, two years in school, working on my own in the dark — as you said, learning to fly in the dark for five years.

CMC: But you didn’t then come up with the idea when you first arrived at Hunter.

SY: No, not at all. In fact, I think you tasked us with bringing in twenty pages of a novel idea, of a novel, and I brought you one and you said, very gently, good bedside manner: “This isn’t going to work, buddy.” I got mad at you. I said, “By Christmas it will work.” And it didn’t work by Christmas. I brought you a second one and you were like, “You know, why don’t you come over for a cup of tea to the house.” I was like, “Oh my God, this is going to be bad.” Do you remember this?

CMC: Yes.

SY: You made me a cup of tea and a piece of toast . . . I thought, “Oh my God, he’s gonna kill this one, too.” I think it encouraged me, on that one that died. Then I found this.

CMC: You knew straightaway.

SY: You knew straightaway and I knew straightaway.

CMC: We both did.

SY: I think you said, “Did anyone get shot?” I said, “No.” “Did anyone die?” “No.” “What a shame.”

CMC: You weren’t there, were you?

SY: I wasn’t there. It was 1999. I was in college. I knew all about it, because my dad . . . My dad doesn’t like this, but he’s a Marxist professor of geography, so I grew up in this milieu.

We had a board game up in the attic where my Lego room was. It was Monopoly, but it was a socialist version of Monopoly. It was called Capital. Everyone played at the same time, no one knew the rules. We never played it. I don’t know how it works. I got it out when all the buildings were broken and whatever.

CMC: You were in Houston at that stage, is that correct?

SY: I lived in Houston, but I was an undergrad at Penn State. I knew that people were going to Seattle, I knew a lot about the protests. A lot of people around me were activists. And to be honest, I knew that one of the strategies was mass arrest, clog the jails. I had already been arrested at seventeen for . . . it doesn’t matter . . . For something that’s legal now. Whatever. Well, it was stupid nonetheless. But I spent a night in jail. To be honest, I was a coward. I didn’t want to go back to jail. I didn’t want to spend time in jail. I hadn’t been trained in how you nonviolently spend time in jail, what are the tactics and techniques. Looking back on it, I wish I had been, because it was an incredibly powerful moment. Seattle was such a powerful moment for the people that were there, a real life-changing, politicizing moment. They’d been training for six months. It was incredible.

CMC: Did you want to write about it as an idea? Did you want to write about it as a character? I remember you started out with the diplomat character . . .

SY: He’s not even in the book any more.

CMC: Well, he’s sort of there. He’s hanging in there.

SY: No, we fired him and hired someone else.

CMC: But he’s still there. His ghost is there.

SY: Yes. I think it started as an idea, but a charged idea. It was something I’d paid attention to and was really important to me, and then it never occurred to me you could write fiction about something like that. I think it was something you taught me, or the lessons started to sink in.

CMC: You had fun writing this novel. I went over it again today, and I could just see the fun oozing out of the sentences.

SY: Yeah. I was trying to break them. I was trying to break the sentence.

CMC: There’s a lot of DeLillo in there. There’s a lot of Kushner there.

SY: I think the energy of those sentences is coming out of DeLillo — Underworld. Underworld is a book . . . I remember you saying about Ulysses is that it was a book that you hadn’t actually read cover-to-cover but you would just dip into it, and then had read ten times, in some ways, I think. Underworld is Ulysses for me. I’ve read that book ten times.

CMC: And there’s a bit of Cotter in your character.

SY: That’s exactly right. The young character in Underworld. I don’t think I was copying so much as, you know, playing the melody.

I have to say I wasn’t trying to emulate Pynchon, but Pynchon’s insanity . . . Talk about permission. He gave himself permission to do whatever. So reading that and then going to write, I’m like, “I can do whatever I want.” If a sentence is going to go on for thirty-five pages, it’s going to go on for thirty-five pages. That’s fine.

CMC: We’ve talked about being fun and all these things. But it still took a couple of years to be here in this position.

SY: I’d always thought it was going to be, “Oh, a few more months, and I’ll be fine.” When I lived in New Orleans I was working on this book, and I moved . . . I had a buddy invite me to New Orleans, and into a room without a bed. I had enough money to write or to buy a bed. I had one more month of writing without working. I’m like, “Well, I’m going to be done in a month; I’ll just get an air mattress.” I did that for six months. Every month I would have a little more money and I’d be like, “Bed or another month of writing?” I’m like, “Oh, I’ll be done in a month.”

CMC: And you found a wonderful editor, Lee Boudreaux.

SY: I would say I found two really incredible editors. I worked with P. J. Mark, who is my agent, for a year on the manuscript, and that was an incredible process. Both these two, the first conversation I had with them about the book blew me away, because you write it and you want people to say it’s good or whatever, but some people understand what you’re doing deeper than you even dreamed to understand it yourself (if that makes any sense), and they both had their thumb on the pulse of the book — about the politics, about the characters, or about keeping it simple, about the emotional story and throughline. So it was easy.

CMC: When did the title come about?

SY: Well, the title is not mine, honestly. The title I found when I was doing research in Seattle was this archive in the basement of the University of Washington, about twenty boxes, twenty-five boxes — a writer’s dream. Photographs, firsthand accounts . . . I found a box of VHS tapes from the day that no one had opened since it had been put there. So I’m watching handheld footage of people running through the streets. Amazing. I found five days of police scanner traffic. That was the first thing that got me into the topic. “That’s incredible.” You’re hearing them call, and the first thing you hear them get scared, and I was like, “Ah.” But I saw someone who had a sign that said, “Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist,” and I was like, “That’s it.” It crystallized for me what I was trying to talk about, which was the idea that empathy can be a radical act.

The thing that really caught me emotionally, the way it moved from an intellectual product to something that I really cared about, and on an emotional level, was before that I saw a photo of a woman at the protest, she’s on her knees, long red hair, people all around here — and she’s clearly been hit in the head with a baton. She’s bleeding, and there’s a guy who looks like a stranger tending to her head. The question I asked myself is: What is this woman doing here? What am I, who is a coward, and sitting at a state college, scared to get arrested . . . And here is this woman. What courage does it take to sit there and be willing to get tear-gassed, and for a people three continents away? Not for her own rights but for the rights of a kid making shoes in Bangladesh or Vietnam.

CMC: Do you think the protests achieved anything?

SY: I do. We already talked about it.

CMC: Do you think that your novel reflects that achievement?

SY: I think so. I’ll tell you, one of the most difficult . . . I’ll be really honest. One of the most difficult things about writing the book, and Tennessee can vouch for this because he had to call me on it a bunch of times . . . Those first drafts, I had a hard time writing protestors, because I just kept going to satire. I don’t know if that was my own ignorance about protesting, or if it was me absorbing the cultural feeling about protesting — that it’s silly, it’s a bunch of sick . . .

CMC: Cops are really hard to write, too, because they go toward satire, too — but you got the cops.

SY: Yeah. It’s easy to go to satire. There was a point where I think I decided, “I don’t want to be a writer who writes another satire; I’d like to write a sincere book.” As silly and as stupid as that sounds, that’s what I want to do, and that’s what I want to add to the culture.

That was difficult for me. Then I think one of the ways was that picture, that was courage, but I was also asking that question: Are protests effective? I think they are. I think we sometimes forget that we have so many other places to create change. My dad taught me this, but the political is one spot to make change. But so is writing a book. I didn’t have to ask a politician to write this book. Congress didn’t have to pass a law for me to write this book. My dad talked about urban poverty. Poverty is just a word. I mean, how do you dismantle capitalism? It’s through small actions. It’s through breaking down poverty as a lived experience of not enough food, of your health not being good. So those are things that we can actually work on, without ever having to call a politician. We can work on urban gardens. We can work on building homes for people. We can go to the community and ask them what they need for better health.

CMC: Talk to me for a moment, then, about what I would possibly call your “dual identity.” Sri Lanka, America . . . When you first came into the Hunter program, I remember describing you quite often as sort of “young Sri Lankan author.” You weren’t born there. But talk to me about your background.

SY: Sure. I consider myself a brown American or a man of color before I would say Sri Lankan, to be honest. I didn’t grow up there. There was a pretty brutal civil war there from 1983 until 2009. So we weren’t able to go back very much. I’ve gone back as an adult. But I grew up in Pennsylvania. I think it gave me a bit of a double vision. I remember so clearly from when I was five years old, my mom and dad arguing over — not over whether it was better, but whether it was proper or whether it was correct to eat with a fork or to eat with your hands, like we do in Sri Lanka. Proper. Like, what is the correct way to eat? You’re a barbarian if you eat with your hands and you’re a bloody idiot if you eat with your fork. So seeing that as a kid, you realize right away, “Oh, there’s no right way,” and all these cultural norms are up for grabs. I think as a writer, that’s great. It makes you an outsider, but it gives you beautiful access into looking into people’s motivations.

CMC: You have that sort of outside-inside thing going on.

SY: A little bit right from the beginning.

CMC: Yeah, right from the beginning, which I really like. I’m going to open it up to questions from the audience in a minute. But I’d like to ask you, just for people in general: This is publication day and it’s a big celebration, but it’s also a little bit terrifying, too, because people are going to ask, “What’s next?” I hate that friggin’ question. Give me a break!

SY: What’s next I’m hoping is a project about college sports, the dark side of college sports, called When the Lights Go Down.

CMC: Oh, you’ve already got the title and everything. Is this Tiddlywinks or what is it?

SY: College basketball.

CMC: Did you play basketball?

SY: I played basketball. Not at college. I played intramurals.

CMC: What’s led you to that?

SY: What led me to that? I love basketball. I love college sports. Part of it was the Penn State scandal, so I was thinking about college football first. That’s where I grew up. I’d like to write that, too. But the idea is, it’s a coach who has been at a small-time school, and he took them a long way in the tournament, and he gets hired for the big time. The question is: Is he going to go dirty? Is he willing to play the dirty game to win? So it’s really kind of the question of what are you willing to do to win? I see that all around us in our society. Right? What are you willing to do to win?

CMC: That’s nice. When the Lights Go Down. It seems to me you do sort of confront that darkness, that’s what you’ve been working on for quite a long time, and yet you refuse the sort of easy cynicism of, like, saying, “The lights are all completely dark.”

SY: That’s interesting about this book, too, because this also could be called “When the Lights Go Down.” I think there’s a lot of anger in this book, and two-thirds of the way through you’re exhausted . . . I was exhausted with the anger of the characters. I was exhausted, and they’re looking for something else. That’s another reason why I have to say that the protests were effective. People built human connections. It’s a cliché, but Che Guevara said it best. He said, “As ridiculous as it may sound, I believe the true revolution will be guided by a great feeling of love.” I’m with Che on that one.

Comments are closed.