Recent Reads: ‘Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist’ by Sunil Yapa

by Andria Williams

In recent months, I’ve read dozens of books, and now is the time of reckoning: time to put a few thoughts about each one on this blog, to share my enthusiasm or lack thereof.

Because it just came out in paperback this week, I’ll start with Sunil Yapa’s ‘Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist.’ I read this book in hardcover back in February, when Yapa and I did a reading on the same day at Book Passages in Corte Madera, CA. My dad and I read the book at the same time and were both impressed by Yapa’s writing — his characterization, his momentum, his sense of urgency.

The novel follows an ensemble cast of characters through a single day in 1999, at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. This was an event I remembered from my own youth, but had not participated in, and Yapa’s treatment made me sit up straight and take the event seriously. At Book Passages, he spoke of listening to hours and hours of protestors’ testimonies and police tape. He described listening in a basement room as the police officer’s voices grew more and more frantic, their responses more emotional and dangerous. From this well of plot and emotion, his novel grew.yapa2

At the heart of the novel is young Victor, an earnest, hurting, mixed-race teenager who’s recently lost his mother. The event — and his police-chief father’s anguished, unfair response to it– has sent Victor on a three-year international tour, seeking some kind of justice and solace in the world. His intro in the novel is moving, memorable, full of the kind of momentum Yapa seems to channel effortlessly:

Victor–curled into himself like a question mark, a joint hanging from his mouth; Victor with his hair natural in two thick braids, a red bandanna folded and knotted to hold them back; Victor — with his dark eyes and his thin shoulders and his cafecito con leche skin, wearing a pair of classic Air Jordans, the leather so white it glowed– imagine him how you will because he hardly knew how to see himself.

Victor might be more desperate for belief than anybody in the novel, but he’s also painfully self-aware, and at each point where he tries desperately to connect, something in him also pulls away:

But it was embarrassing to chant. It was embarrassing to believe.

Meanwhile his father, Chief Bishop, has stayed put in Seattle, waiting for any word from his wayward son. He doesn’t know that this protest has the opportunity to bring them together, with results that could be fulfilling or may very well be disastrous.

The tragedy of Chief Bishop and Victor is that they love each other but have reached an impasse: they absolutely cannot understand one another. Chief Bishop simply cannot grasp why his son, a smart young man filled with life and potential, has cast his lot among the ne’er-do-wells of the world.

Son, in this life there are winners and losers. Your choice is which side will you be on? Don’t back the losers, son. They’ll never let you go.

Throughout every chapter in this book, no matter who’s narrating, is the simmering knowledge that Chief Bishop and Victor are headed towards one another.

But there are other players and other plot points as well. There’s a young revolutionary woman named King — in his talk at Book Passages, Yapa said she was probably his favorite– who’s committed to her ideals, somewhat in love with her team’s leader, John Henry, and guarding a dark secret of her own. In short: she must not get arrested on this day, and the reader will gradually learn why.

My favorite character, however, has got to be Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, a Sri Lankan delegate whose sole motivating principle is the hope of meeting President Clinton at the WTO talks. Charles is a great counterbalance to the privileged, overly-earnest American protestors — he has spent a decade in jail; he is practical but not entirely jaded; he is a wise, sensitive eye on the proceedings, and he may have more at stake than anybody. I found his character utterly moving and fascinating.

Ten years he had been jailed, and despite his warm manner, a certain solitude still clung to him.

…He knew it was only human nature to believe it best to ignore suffering, to focus on your own good fortune. The human survival mechanism: say your prayers, thank your gods, and hold your breath when you pass the slums. The poison of privilege, wasn’t it?


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author Sunil Yapa

What is change, exactly, and do we really want it? What does it mean to be privileged, and how  many shades of privilege and pain exist?

‘Your Heart’ stakes a clear claim to the actual privilege in the world–weekend protestors waving “gym-toned” arms, their Native American-inspired feather earrings swaying–  while simultaneously acknowledging that hurt is human, hurt is everywhere. The book makes humanity an equalizer without watering down its message, which is that, yes, Virginia, privilege exists, and let’s face facts: you are a beneficiary of it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as fundamentally earnest as ‘Your Heart is a Muscle.’ This is a book that believes in the Struggle, believes in equality, champions the underdog without reservation. Its liberal pedigree is out front, no shame. And that was oddly refreshing, for this former UC-Berkeley grad–what seems like a lifetime ago– the idea that what the kids believe in is actually right, that heart trumps experience; that experience, over an educated and compassionate lifetime, will simply validate the large-souled zealotry of youth.

Within this framework, characters move. Their paths intersect gradually, and satisfyingly, as the novel proceeds. Some of the characters will find what they are looking for, and others will have their dreams deferred. No matter your political leanings, their desires–met and unmet–will move you. The humanity that binds us runs, rich and pure as it has ever run, through this unique and remarkable book.


Yapa, Sunil. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. Lee Boudreaux Books, Little, Brown, and Company, 2016.

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Here’s yours truly, meeting the gracious Sunil after his reading at Book Passages, Corte Madera, CA, Feb. 2016. (photo by my dad, Bob Williams)

Code Switching

by Lisa Stice

(poet, Marine Corps wife)

My husband’s difficulty in code switching between military-speak and you’re-talking-to your-spouse-speak simultaneously irritates and amuses me. I understand that some things, like how he measures time – 2200 instead of 10:00 pm – is so ingrained that I really should expect it to last the rest of his life. Plus, that’s no big deal to get used to, subtracting 12 is easy, and a lot of other countries use the same standard for referring to time of day.

When my husband says things like “roger” at the dinner table, then he sounds like a caricature from Gomer Pile or the character Mike Watt from the BBC series Spaced, and it makes me giggle. For those of you who haven’t seen Spaced, here’s a clip to give you an idea of what my husband sounds like when he comes home from work:


We meet Mike about three minutes in.

It cracks me up when I send a text or email saying, “On your way home, can you pick up_______,” and he replies, “wilco.” Still, those aren’t too crazy. I know what they mean, so I get that message that he understands and will comply. I’m sure there’s civilians who use the same terms or refer to dinner as chow or do some damage assessment after a storm, but few civilians would say, “I’m going to the head” or “Let’s deconflict this situation.” Is deconflict even a word? It’s not in my dictionary, and those stupid acronyms that my husband likes to throw around certainly aren’t either.

The acronyms are the worst. How am I supposed to know the foreign language of military acronyms? If we’re talking in person, I can stop my husband and say, “Talk like a normal person. BLT? What the heck is that? All I know it as is a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” Or in back and forth emailing about buying a big ticket item, he writes, “You’re the CINCHOUSE.” I can write back, “I’m what?” and get the answer, “You know, Commander in Charge of the House.”

And because these things are just a part of his normal vocabulary, it doesn’t cross his mind that he should probably share the ones that pertain to me, like PCS. Not too long after we were together, I stopped by our bank (it serves military) to give them the paperwork they needed for my change of name. The employee asked, “Are you going to be PCSing soon?” That was the first time I’d heard that one, and I was too embarrassed to ask the meaning because she gave the impression that I should know the meaning of that letter combination. I just said, “I don’t know.” She gave me a folder just in case I would be PCSing soon, and then as I thumbed through the papers and packing labels in the privacy of my car, I put two and two together that PCS had something to do with moving.

My favorite, though, is when he emailed me a cryptic message that just said, “FYSA” followed with an attachment. Of course, he sent it in a brief moment at his office computer before he left for some daily training or meeting or something, so I got no response to my “What?” I was like, “OK, I’ll just do an Internet search.” My search came up with lots of things related to youth soccer: Fairbanks Youth Soccer Association, Florida Youth Soccer Association, Fluvanna Youth Soccer Association. The search came up with other things, too, that didn’t seem to fit the context: Funny You Should Ask and First Year Spring Admission.

So then, I refined my search to “What does the military acronym FYSA mean?” For Your Situational Awareness. To your wife? How about a nice, casual, personal “So you can plan ahead…” or something more along those lines.

Some years have passed since that email, and For Your Situational Awareness now is the first result for a “What does FYSA mean?” search. Maybe it’s because were living in a texting/Twitter world where people clamor for acronyms to pack in as much info into as few characters as possible – and the military has a lot to offer – or maybe it’s because military related answers are the most popular from cryptic emails and texts regularly sending thousands of mil-spouses to the search engines.


stice_profile Lisa Stice is a Marine Corps wife. It’s difficult to say where “home” is, but she currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. She is the author of a poetry collection, Uniform(Aldrich Press, 2016). You can find out more about her and her publications at lisastice.wordpress.com and facebook.com/LisaSticePoet.