Poignant, If Overly Romantic, Exploration of Hope and Protest – Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle

heartYour Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
Published January 12, 2016
Little, Brown and Company
Source: I bought it

“The Flamethrowers meets Let the Great World Spin in this electrifying debut novel set amid the heated conflict of Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests. In this raw and breathtaking novel, Yapa marries a deep rage with a deep humanity. In doing so he casts an unflinching eye on the nature and limits of compassion, and the heartbreaking difference between what is right and what is possible.” Source: Hachette Book Group



1999 WTO protests.
People around the world live in abject poverty. The mentally ill are out on the streets. Children are starving. Big Pharma is creating monopolies of health. American corn subsidies are impoverishing agricultural nations. The US is shoving hormone treated beef down the throats of unwilling Europeans, under the guise of ‘free trade’. Workers are being exploited. Terrible injustice permeates human existence.

But, there is hope: “He heard them saying in the streets, ‘Another world is possible,’ and beneath his ribs broken and healed and twice broken and healed and thrice broken and healed, he shuddered and thought, God help us. We are mad with hope. Here we come.” And, for those who come together in such displays of hopeful protest, their collective action and standing together is how “they hold the fear in their mouths and transform it into gold”…

Ah, sweet, positive, forward-looking perspective.

This book would have kindled a fierce will-to-action in my 20-year old starry-eyed bleeding-heart liberal optimistic soul. But now, as a 30s something fully disillusioned adult, what strikes me most about Yapa’s message is its seeming youthful naivete, its… untarnished romanticism. Even violence is presented as redeemable, ultimately conquerable. Everywhere, there is hope!

I totally fell for that in 2008 and 2012. I used to be a most hopeless romantic. So perhaps this means that instead of focusing on why this book induced some major bouts of eye-rolling, I should instead ask, What HAPPENED to me?!?! Have I completed the full transformation into my Romanian-strength cynical parents?

To be fair, Yapa’s own understanding is much more nuanced than what I’ve let on so far. He does allude to protester’s optimism as a quintessential American phenomenon, born in positions of privilege and sustained through the (white) “savior complex”. Also, a Sri Lankan representative to the WTO meetings is invoked as part of the supporting cast, an offering of a perspective from the ‘outside’. But, he is but a bit-player, an interlude to the action. And, in the end, this is not a story about the plight of colonized people, but one about “hope” – hope in our power to change ‘the system’ and to sustain each other, hope in the potency of protest and collective action, hope in our ability to ‘make a difference’, and so on and the like.

Ok, so by now it’s clear I’m fully a-romantic. I do believe in beauty/love/ideals/dreams, but I remain grounded, with feet firmly planted, as a first principle. So nothing really gets under my skin as the reek of explicit sappiness. And, while Yapa’s words resonate deeply with the plight of being human, there are too many instances of this for my taste:

“The man who took her hand in his, not an effort of restraint, but holding her hand and looking into her face, and in his eyes she saw not the state, not institutionalized evil, not modern medicine and all its chemical compromises, not the death of human connection, not a servant of the state which built prisons for you at every turn, no, what she saw in his eyes, in his face, was nothing more than simple human concern, the sudden affection of one human being for another.”

Yes, yes, it’s all absolutely true, and beautifully written even, and I get it, but I do appreciate subtlety, and I’m not a fan of emotionally-manipulative writing. Especially when such writing depicts worlds I’m already in agreement with, that I already inhabit. I absolutely 100% agree with Yapa – YES workers are exploited, YES the era of agriculture that Monsanto is ushering in will be the death of us, YES big pharama’s profiteering ways are the moral equivalent of experimentation on the less fortunate, YES of course cops are just people and we all have a potential to connect on a human level. But there’s just something about this kind of open polemicism, even (especially) from my own ‘side’ of the political spectrum, that I do not digest well. Yapa doesn’t quite ‘rant’, but he does pontificate. And explain. And muse, in detail. And then articulate some more.

One last comment on Yapa’s writing:
A demonstration will serve. Staccato thoughts. Just scattered associations, really. Mostly, not sentences. At least, at first, and then after a bit of this, words begin to cohere into nebulous forms. Next, a full one presents: here is a subject, a predicate, and we are once again on solid ground. And then there may even come a truly beautiful and poignant sentence that vividly depicts some soul-wrenching order of the universe. Until the cycle degenerates into a stream of uninterrupted musings on global trade and the effects of colonization and did you know we are exploiting immigrant workers, they work on farms and don’t get paid enough and we must protest because this is not even a sentence anymore but who cares because love and hope trump violence and despair and the tyranny of fiction, and we will persevere while making our own meaning as we tumble through all this feeling.
[Repeat for 300 pages]

This is Yapa’s debut, and it gives every indication that he has the ear, the heart, and the lyricism to write glorious poetry. But at the moment, his poeticism seems a bit contrived; I probably could develop an algorithm that could gobble up the first few chapters and predict to the note the flow for the remainder of the book: staccato – phrases – full sentences – stream of consciousness – loop back. The style is especially jarring considering chapters alternate perspectives – a cop, a chief of police, various protesters, the guy from Sri Lanka. And yet they all think/talk the same way.

Overall, though, I’m very glad I read this book – it’s been popping up on so many lists, curiosity was overwhelming me, and now I know. Also, OK, OK, I agree with it all! And it’s beautiful and if I had read this when I was 20, I would have fallen in love. 

Disclaimer: Your Heart is a Muscle could very well be a 5-heart-book, seeing as this review reflects more on my cynicism than any other factor.


      1. Hmmmm. I had written a much LONGER and thoughtful comment, but it seems like it didn’t go through… 😦
        Anyway, I bought this book earlier in the year and started reading it, but had to put it aside for some reason that I forget. I also forgot what else I wrote :/

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I will be reading this one soon, hopefully. I’m number 5 on the library hold list! I’ve heard some good things and it’s one that intrigued me from the first time I read about it. Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome! Wow, I did not realize librarians put themselves on wait-lists – very conscientious of you 🙂 Yapa is a very promising writer – this is not a perfect book, but absolutely a stand-out from other new books I’ve read this year. Hope those 4 people read fast 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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