Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

by Sunil Yapa

NOOK Book(eBook)

View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316386524
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 01/12/2016
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 259,050
File size: 542 KB

About the Author

Sunil Yapa holds a bachelor's degree in economic geography from Penn State University and an MFA from Hunter College. The biracial son of a Sri Lankan father and mother from Montana, Yapa has lived around the world, including time in Greece, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, China, and India, as well as London, Montreal, and New York City.


Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Sunil Yapa

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."

In January 2016, 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. —The Barnes & Noble Review

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. But I also think we have so many . . . 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 f, 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.

January 20, 2016

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book, couldn't put it down!
Katie_Bookish-Tendencies More than 1 year ago
The year is 1999, and crowds have gathered in Seattle in an attempt to peacefully protest the World Trade Organization conference. This is a novel based on true events, that somehow I didn’t know much about prior to my reading, however, you don’t really have to have prior knowledge to enjoy this incredible story. Told in short chapters and alternating perspectives, this tells the events of one day from the eyes of six different protest attendees – from protesters, to cops, to a Sri Lankan delegate. Yapa takes liberties with the concept of time, and slows down what may last seconds in reality to several pages of description and often internal crisis or significant reflection on the part each character. I found this technique incredibly moving, and it creates this sense of tension, especially during periods of climax. The inner workings of each character, written out for the reader to experience, have an almost rambling or tangential quality about them, that feels so true to real life. Just as much action is happening in the minds of each character, as they internally process or relive times gone by, as is happening on the streets of Seattle. Although Yapa was able to effectively alternate between these six characters overall, a few of them felt less fleshed out compared to others, and were given less back story and thus, less motive for their actions. I wonder how differently the story would have played out if he would have focused on those few characters he had a clearer vision of when writing. Highlighted on many lists of “books to watch” in 2016, I wholeheartedly agree, and urge you to pick this one up. It’s a quick read, but one that will have lasting impact long after you’ve turned the final page. For more, visit
TulaneGirl 11 months ago
Important book, although not a very good book. The story centers around a young, biracial man whose mother has died and whose father struggles to understand him. However, it jumps from character to character - each with their own perspective and story to tell. It's set at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, which is the perfect background for all these stories. It didn't work for me though b/c as I read it, it was too dramatic and the soundtrack for Les Miserable kept going off in my head. It was over the top melodrama. HOWEVER, there are so many thoughts, so many concepts, that are just so important that even though I didn't like the style, the composition, or the melodrama I would recommend it. The only thing that worked for me was the didactic nature of the work. There are so many lines of such importance. This book tries to be a book of love and revolution. But at the heart of it, despite all the distractions, this is a story of the love between father and son.