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.

sunil1

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)

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