Second try produces a daring debut
Sunil Yapa, author of the gripping, profoundly humane first novel Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, used to hide his laptop in the oven of the beach house he was renting in Chile.
“That was my security measure,” Yapa says with a bemused laugh during a call to Woodstock, New York, where he currently lives. “I’d put it in a baking tray and hide it in the oven!”
What Yapa was protecting was the 604-page first draft of his novel about the chaotic protest during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle that erupted into violence. In Chile, where he lived frugally while he was teaching himself to write, Yapa didn’t have access to a printer, the cloud or a backup hard drive. The novel lived only on his laptop. Maybe you can guess where this is going.
But first, a little more background: Yapa grew up mostly in State College, Pennsylvania. He knew from a young age that he wanted to write fiction. Libraries were his favorite haunt. And while he had many friends as a child, his mother often had to tell him to stop reading and shoo him out of the house to play. But as the son of an immigrant—his father is a recently retired Penn State geography professor from Sri Lanka; his mother is from Montana—“there was a sense that being a writer wasn’t a serious occupation or a useful use of your time. My father never said that to me, and in fact he’s very proud that I’m doing it. But it’s something that I absorbed and something I’ve heard reflected from other second-generation immigrant kids. It was very difficult to think about all he had sacrificed to get here and raise my brother and me in a middle-class life and take being an artist seriously.”
So from the age of 17 to 27, Yapa tried to follow in his father’s footsteps and get a Ph.D. in geography. But then he began to travel, “and I realized I didn’t want to be an academic; what I wanted to do was write fiction.”
Yapa also discovered a surprising way to support his writing habit. “I worked as a traveling salesman. A friend and I would travel all over the country to the biggest colleges and universities and sell posters. We would compress a year’s work into two intense months and make $10,000 or $15,000—not enough to live in New York or San Francisco or, really, anywhere in the U.S.” But with help from his grandfather, who encouraged his writing, he and his friend discovered that they could live on what they had made for a whole year in Chile or Guatemala without working. “We didn’t live the high life, but I was able to teach myself to write for almost seven years before I sent anything out.”
Yapa was eventually accepted to the Hunter College M.F.A. program, where he honed his talents with guidance from writers like Peter Carey, Colum McCann and Claire Messud. After graduating, he returned to his traveling-salesman gig to support the completion of his novel. One night on a sales trip to Chicago, the laptop containing the only copy of his book was stolen from his hotel room.
"I thought, oh god, I’m going to write this thing again because it’s not going to leave me alone.”
“I never recovered it. It was just gone. I was devastated, of course. I was depressed for three months. But I honestly think it was a moment when I knew I must be a writer because the story started bubbling up again in my brain, and I thought, oh god, I’m going to write this thing again because it’s not going to leave me alone.”
Yapa now thinks there were benefits to the loss of the first draft. The disappeared draft had more than 50 characters. The published book includes a streamlined and compelling cast of characters—fully realized personalities who dramatize the stories of the people who clashed in Seattle on the first day of the WTO meeting. These include Victor, an initially apolitical, homeless teenager with a connection to Police Chief Bishop; demonstrators Kingfisher and John Henry, who struggle throughout a brutal day to remain nonviolent; police officers Park and “Ju,” who are overwhelmed by the sheer number of protesters; and Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, a Sri Lankan diplomat caught up in the fray.
“I was thinking about the protest and about globalization,” says Yapa, explaining the inception of the book, “and I found this picture of a woman on the street in Seattle, almost wreathed in tear gas. She was on her knees and there was blood coming from her forehead. Someone, he looks like a medic, is tending to her scalp. Her hands are clasped together and it looks like she’s praying, but she might just be in pain. You can’t tell. I saw that, and I thought, wow, what would make a woman like that risk tear gas, pepper spray, beatings for a protest? Because this was a different kind of protest. It was about someone else’s rights three continents away. It wasn’t about an expansion of this person’s own rights, necessarily, but about a recognition of living in a globally connected world, where our lives overlap with each other. That, to me, was both inspiring and totally confusing.”
Yapa, who lived in Seattle when he was 19—the same age as his luminous character Victor—did an enormous amount of research to bring a startling clarity to his narrative. “Almost everything that happens in the book happened, at some point, in the protest,” Yapa says. “I wanted the experience for a reader to be accurate, not sensationalized.”
So a reader will experience the incredible discipline of the nonviolent protesters; the utter confusion and fear of a police force of 900 at most trying—and finally failing—to maintain order when faced with 60,000 demonstrators; and the tension within all of Yapa’s characters between their public actions and their complex inner thoughts and emotions.
This ends up making Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist an absolutely compelling read. Many of the scenes are simply electrifying and some are quite violent. “I really, really wanted this book to be a page-turner,” Yapa says. “But I didn’t want to sensationalize the violence. And yet [violent acts] happened. I wanted a reader to experience what courage it must have taken for people to sit through this.”
In addition, Yapa is interested in the ideas behind the protests and the WTO. “I also wanted readers to experience the politics and economics of IMF deals and World Bank loans, structural adjustments and austerity programs. All that stuff is very academic and kind of boring.” In the novel, Yapa somehow manages to put human faces and human consequences on these abstractions.
The book probably succeeds so well because Yapa “tried to have no villains in the book. The whole book is a project to empathize with all the characters. I wanted a reader to think, yeah, it’s not just that this character seems terrible, he is terrible! And yet he has a history, and that history doesn’t forgive his actions, but it does complicate our view of him. I think the essence of compassion is to hold two contradictory feelings for someone at the same time.”
Asked how he arrived at such a view, Yapa points to his experiences as a biracial child. “I have double vision. In mainstream white culture, I felt kind of Sri Lankan. But I don’t speak the language and I didn’t grow up there. So when I was around Sri Lankan culture, I felt very white. I am always straddling two worlds. As a kid you struggle with feeling like an outsider. But as a writer that’s an excellent place to be.”
This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.