THE BOOKS YOU SHOULD BE READING #2: YOUR HEART IS A MUSCLE THE SIZE OF A FIST BY SUNIL YAPA
Welcome to book #2 in my series The Books You Should Be Reading. Sorry it’s taken me a while to post another one of these, but I had to weed through some books in the month of February to find one that I really thought was worth reading (*Read in Spongebob narrator’s voice* 2 months later…).
I’ve been reading about 3 books per month so far this year, which would make this my 8 or 9th book that I’ve read in 2019. I’ve been reading a good mixture of thriller novels (my fave genre), your standard fiction, and an eye-opening nonfiction pick (which will definitely be showing up on this list down shortly).
The book for this post, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa, is fictional, but the setting for the novel, and some of the events within it, actually happened. Your Heart is a Muscle takes place on November 30, 1999 in Seattle, WA. For those of you who don’t know what happened in Seattle on November 30, 1999 (like I didn’t before I read this novel and looked it up), tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization’s conference, which was being held in it’s convention center. The protestors originally intended for their demonstration to be peaceful, but the situation quickly became chaotic, with police officers using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowd and protesters vandalizing businesses nearby.
This story follows several characters’ experiences throughout these events, including Victor, a teenager who has left home and tries to sell weed to activists to make money to stay afloat; his estranged father, Bishop, who also happens to be the city’s police chief; King and John Henry, two protesters who take Victor under their wing; Dr. Wickramsinghe, a Sri Lankan delegate trying to gain his country’s admittance to the W.T.O; and Ju and Park, two police officers with complicated backstories, and who do things they never thought they were capable of to try and stop the protests.
Here’s why you should read this book:
THE SHORT VERSION
Over the past several years, we’ve seen increased activism across the world, which has often resulted in protests and marches. Depending on where they take place and on the nature of what is being protested, some turn violent, and some don’t. But this issue runs deeper in America: police brutality is something that has been an issue in the U.S. for quite some time now, especially as it relates to violence by law enforcement against minorities, specifically black men. This book puts you right in the middle of a protest where police brutality becomes an issue, and while Victor is part black, race is not a factor in this police brutality because police are attack anyone, and everyone, who stands in their way. This book will dive into the many reasons why people protest, the perceived notion/assumptions of privilege, and how hard it is to truly decide what action is right in the midst of a crisis.
THE LONG VERSION
Every once in a while, there are people who do amazing things that restore your faith in humanity. This book does not speak of these things. In fact, it speaks of quite the opposite. This novel speaks of the atrocities that happened during one day of the Seattle W.T.O. protests in 1999, which I am so surprised I had no prior knowledge of before reading this book, despite the media attention they got. Regardless of that fact, I did enjoy this novel. I would not say it was a great book, but definitely one that you still should read.
Here’s a little backstory of the protests: 1999, on the cusp of the new millennium, was a time when inequalities in income, working conditions, and environmental protections between the first and third worlds were gaining some attention. Corporations wanted to move jobs to places where the pay scale was a fraction of what it was in the West, and where they did not have to put up with environmental and safety regulations, with as little resistance as possible. This was what the demonstrations were about, not opposition to global trade, but opposition to the sort of exploitative trade that was becoming more and more the standard. These issues are still very much prevalent today, as the disparity in income and working conditions between first and third world countries is at its largest in history.
But it’s not the reason behind the protests that is the heart of the novel, it’s the protests themselves, and the relationships between people on both sides.
The actual Seattle protests became violent very quickly, and the events of the protests are mirrored quite accurately in the novel. Yapa describes police officers going up to activists and spraying pepper spray directly in their eyes to break up their blockades of human chains, shooting rubber bullets at any demonstrators walking towards their posts, beating people until they stop chanting, shooting someone because they are seen as a “perceived threat,” I could go on.
The main characters of this novel are on both the giving and receiving end of the violence. And while reading through the chapters in the voice of those on the giving end, you read of their struggle of trying to decide what is right. Bishop just wants to “protect his city.” But is harming it’s citizens really protecting it? Ju shoots a protester who jumps on her tank, who could be a possible threat. But what about an unarmed teenage protester should scare her? Park just wants to do what he’s told and get these people out. But what happens when fear and anger and adrenaline add to doing what you're told and you end up doing things you never thought you would? The question of what makes violence legitimate runs throughout the novel, and never quite gets answered. I’m not sure if it ever will.
But the question of legitimized violence is something that is still very relevant today. It seems like almost every year we see at least one thing on the news about a coop shooting and killing someone who was unarmed (and often they thought was “reaching for a gun”). Or where someone is apprehended more aggressively by police than necessary, often resulting in injury, and done because that person was a minority. This has sparked a lot of protests across the country and has resulted in conversation and changes to how police officers are trained and how they should act to certain instances. Although how affective these changes are (since these shootings and aggressive events still occur) remains to be unknown.
While race isn’t too large a part of this book, it does pop up throughout the novel, most notably when Victor notes that his blackness puts him in a different relationship to the police than his newfound white comrades. “You met with the cops? Wow. It must be nice to be white,” he says when they explain they have negotiated a mass arrest. This point is so relevant to today. I have several black male friends who have talked about how nervous they get around cops, simply because they are black men in America. They shouldn't feel uncomfortable walking or driving. And the fact remains that men of color, especially black men, are incarcerated at alarmingly high rates and arrested in disproportionate amounts in America.
The most dynamic relationship detailed throughout the book is that of Victor and his father (and Yapa called this book a father-son story). Bishop has suffered the heartbreak of loss, and wants his son to learn that attachment, that caring leads to crushing disappointment. Victor is trying to fill the void left by the loss of his mother and his falling out with his father. And you can sense this back and forth throughout the novel, even though the two characters aren’t reconnected until the end.
Possibly the most intriguing character for me was Dr.Wickramsinghe. He has been traveling around the world getting signatures of government officials in order to gain Sri Lanka acceptance into the W.T.O. And upon viewing the protesters, only sees them as privileged people protesting for the sake of appearances: “Did they not find a connection between their obscene wealth and the obscene poverty all around them? Perhaps it was too much to suggest the fault was theirs alone. The upper class was too goddamn stupid to be blamed, frankly. But how could they do nothing? How could they look upon their fellow creatures suffering and do absolutely nothing?”
But after he gets swept up in the protests and apprehended to be taken to jail with them, he sits with them and talks with them. He ultimately realizes how educated they are on the inequality between themselves and the people of his country, and what a belief in one’s power to make a change can achieve: “[The protestors] felt they had the power to do something about it. That was what made it so American…they assumed they had that power. They had been born with it — the ability to change the world.”
One of the reasons I, myself, haven’t gone to a protest/march is because I don’t necessarily believe that I can make a change just by showing up. Change is something that takes time, and showing up once isn’t going to affect that. But showing up time and time again might. But there are also a lot of other factors that have to come into play in order to really make a change.
I also very much have the fear that something like this could happen if I were to go to one. I know to some people that may make me seem like a coward, especially because I live in a democratic country where free speech is allowed and (supposedly) valued and where protests aren’t typically (emphasis on typically) met with violence. And while yes, I do think that actions speak louder than words, in many cases I believe the pen is mightier than the sword. Writing can be action, especially when you write to the right people.