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Punching Up

By (March 1, 2016) No Comment

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a FistYapa
By Sunil Yapa
Lee Boudreaux Books, 2016

The dilemma of a political novel is that someone else’s politics, even if they exactly mirror the reader’s own viewpoint, are so often uninteresting on their own. It’s all very well to love clambering up on one’s own soapbox and boring one’s nearest and dearest, but it’s another thing entirely to willingly subject oneself to a fictional character regurgitating Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, or even Leon Trotsky. However serious the character is, however serious the author’s intent, for a fictional protagonist rigid belief can be disastrous.

So a novel set on one single day, a single day that happens to be 30 November 1999, the first day of the Seattle W.T.O. protests, is an ambitious undertaking. Sunil Yapa immediately skirts the problem by having his first character, Victor (one of seven whose voices we hear throughout the novel) not be part of the protest: instead, he is a nineteen-year-old rough-sleeper whose first thought is of the commercial opportunities such a large crowd of people might offer. He puts on his beloved, pristine Nike Air Jordans and heads down to try to convince a few protesters that what they really want to make the day better is some pot.

There are a few things already working against Victor and his ability to fit in. He’s half-black for one thing, and not wearing the uniform of any group of protesters, and he’s also trying to sell drugs to people who don’t want any. It’s not that Victor doesn’t believe in what the protestors are marching for, it’s just that he’s seen so much more than they have. After his mother’s death three years earlier, he and his step-father begin to lose their ability to communicate. After a dramatic book-burning session by the stepfather, Victor left home. He is currently living in a tent under a bridge while selling drugs for quick cash — a career plan that has actually allowed him to travel and spend several extended periods abroad, so he’s far from the stereotypical homeless person. His scepticism and mild bafflement at the protests are wonderfully captured as he approaches one of the marches, which is converging on the main meeting point and chanting, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”

He looked at a blond girl in overalls, an African-type shawl looped atop her head. He looked at her angry blue eyes, her perfect white teeth, her gym-sculpted arm, naked to the cold, and he didn’t know what justice meant to her, to him, to anybody in this country. He saw them come rising from North Face tents gone swampy with sex; from the paint-splattered warehouse where they gathered to gossip and train; from the cellar of the church where they had sat in foldout chairs discussing what they knew of what they called the Third World and there was a look on their faces — all their sweet, round, high-fructose faces — that was hoping everything was more or less okay with the world, even though they knew it wasn’t, and Victor, looking at that look, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The rest of the characters are divided between protestors (King, John Henry) and police (Timothy Park, Chief Bishop and Julia), with the arrival midway through of a would-be Sri Lankan delegate, the seventy-year-old minister Charles Wickramsinghe. The latter is a man who is more excluded than the protestors themselves from many of the benefits of the WTO, and who, initially, cannot understand what these Americans are so angry about.

yourheartisamusclethesizeofafistIndeed, one of the great strengths of this debut novel is its nuance, its refusal to treat characters who don’t share the “right” perspective (and Yapa sensibly makes the authorial position unclear) with derision or ridicule. We see characters who suffer from real discrimination and systemic, institutionally sanctioned inferiority, but we also see the middle-class white people protesting it, and sometimes posturing about their politics. This subtlety is particularly successful in the case of Ju, a Hispanic police officer. She’s a woman of Guatemalan ancestry in a heavily macho environment. Her previous experience of civilian unrest is from the Rodney King riots:

Five days of lunacy. A city burning itself to the ground. On the TV in the precinct when she went back to refresh her supply of plastic cuffs, she had watched live as a mob, mostly black, pulled a white truck driver from his cab and beat him over the head with a cinderblock.

She read later in the papers that a man, watching the same live footage at home, raced down there on a bicycle. An unarmed black man. He kept the mob at bay somehow and pulled the unconscious white man back into the cab of his truck and drove him to the hospital.


She cried when she read that, drinking her bitter coffee sitting alone at a kitchen table that could have been hers, and was, or could have belonged to any one of a thousand other people who had misplaced their lives like it was something you could lose among the folds of the newspaper or the litter in the street and she didn’t know exactly why she cried reading that because she hadn’t misplaced her life like some sad homeless nobody. What she had done is she had lived through the L.A. riots, lived through the mayhem and rage, do you understand, the pain of the destruction of a city, and when you are police and do you understand, when you are police and you live through something like that, you have only three choices: you can quit, you can start making change, or you can suck it up and ask someone for a favour. Ju knew someone in the Seattle police department. And she knew too, even then, that she was police for life. And she surely wasn’t made for political hearings, so six months after the riots, she put in her papers and made the call to Seattle.


Crying alone there in her kitchen, the coffee going cold in her hand because what exactly? Ju staring into the middle distance and the sound of her own weeping competing with the old refrigerator because what kind of courage makes a man. What kind of thing in a man watching it on TV makes him jump off the couch and go racing down there on a bicycle? Was it courage or something else entirely, she didn’t know, really, but god she felt it in her like a certain heat, had seen it many thousands of times on the faces of the men and women she worked with, had felt it many hundreds of times herself. Had seen it on the face of this walking landmine of a cop, who was out there in the crowd right now harassing protesters with his horse. The what? The willingness to carry the burden of protecting other people from themselves? Well, yes, except that sounded like some mierda to her, except mostly not when it came down to it, it sounded exactly right, so let’s just agree to never talk about it again. Because why else would she be here, dressed head to toe in riot gear and willing to risk her bodily safety, if she didn’t love being police in the greatest goddamn country in the world?

This fascinating section starts off with a story of human goodness that might move anyone to tears and follows Ju’s own emotional, if not sentimental, reaction to the incident before progressing to what amounts to a justification for being on the police force. How can a character with such a sympathetic interior life, such recognisable thought processes, draw such radically different conclusions from this incident than the other characters of the novel, who can take a step back and look at, for example, the larger issue of police involvement in the cause of the riots in the first place? It’s almost frightening to see that she shares the same root inspiration as the protesters: the desire to make the world a better place. But this refusal to pigeonhole works so well precisely because humans are so irrational, so adoring of heroism and poignancy, reading into things just about anything we want to read into them. It’s a relief that the novel’s police aren’t black and white stereotypes — but that Ju can have such complex emotional responses, can be visibly a minority with all political expectations that gives a reader, and still not share the protestors’ worldview, both opens her up as comprehensible and closes her off as a mystery.

Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Ju’s colleague Tim Park is a far less appealing character. He is not at all redeemed by a previous act of heroism — he rescued several people from a burning building, an act that has left him with a big angry scar on his face. We meet him watching the beginning of the protest: “Why in holy hell do these people look so happy? Surely they knew they were going to lose.” With great economy, Yapa differentiates Park’s mental state from Ju’s: he assumes that this is a battle, that there should be winners and losers. Yapa cleverly and subtly highlights the way that the police are wound up by the media, their superiors and themselves until they’re ready to strike the minute the action begins. That this eagerness can easily lead to overreaction is confirmed a few pages later when Park raises his baton to attack a young woman pushing a baby in a stroller, who has brought coffee and cookies for the police, and who has made her position clear by stating “Aren’t they are a pain? I mean, gosh, I thought the sixties were over.”

Making three characters police officers gives the novel a satisfying ballast, a nice counterpoint to the different view of the protestors. Chief Bishop is not nearly as aggressive as his junior colleague. Surveying the crowd,

[h]e felt a fondness for these people, a kind of love-struck nostalgia for his city. Americans marching in the rain. Their faces, failed and flawed—they were the faces of a part of American life that was passing away, if not already gone, the belief that the world could be changed by marching in the streets.

riotThe novel and protest both proceed realistically, with stretches of inactivity interspersed with brief periods of frantic action. Park nearly whacks another woman for no reason; Victo narrowly escapes arrest for possession. Victor then falls in with a group of protestors led by King and John Henry. Another person is needed to take part in a locked chain to block the crucial road junction, and Victor eventually decides to join in. Still, though, he is caught between worlds. Not just between black and white, but between believers and sceptics, joiners and baffled observers. The protestors around him are chanting “Whose cops? Our cops?” as Victor sits, scared, chained to the others.

Victor closed his eyes and listened to the howling, heard the voices bouncing off the buildings, the discordant symphony of a thousand voices chanting and shouting and he thought, Shit, man, What did I do? Our cops? Did they really believe that? The police protect money and power. They protect the few from the violence of the many. Do you have to be brown or black to know this? No. Maybe it helps. Shit, our cops? The police, they pickle the world, preserve it the way it is. They are guard dogs keeping us afraid and obedient.

John Henry tells Victor to join in the chanting; it will stop him being afraid. But for Victor, “[i]t was embarrassing to chant. It was embarrassing to believe.” John Henry’s encouragements further put him off as it becomes clear that protest rather than principle is what John Henry lives for: the excitement of the crowd, the conflict. “What was it Victor heard in John Henry’s voice, what impish spark that suggested in some not-so-secret part of his heart John Henry thought this the purest fun known to man?” It’s intriguing that in a novel that sets up the views of three different police officers so clearly, the two main protestors are somewhat thin. It’s as if the author is relying on the reader’s presumed political sympathies to carry too much of the burden of characterisation. Because, it turns out, King and John Henry are complicated people as well, but their mixture of good and bad turns out to be rather skewed towards the bad. Again, the refusal to paint characters in morally simplistic terms is laudable, but King and John Henry aren’t treated with the understanding and nuance shown to the police officers and Victor.

One-third of the way through the novel the first tear gas canisters are thrown. It’s a good ending to a suspenseful section, a turning point where the police move deliberately towards violence. It’s made clear to us that the will of the 900 officers and their masters — Chief Bishop’s desires to keep things peaceful are repeatedly overridden by orders and threats from his superiors — is going to overcome that of the 50,000 protestors, the vast majority of whom simply want to prevent the WTO delegates from reaching their meetings.

protestWhen Charles Wickramsinghe, the Sri Lankan delegate arrives at the protest, trying to get to his meeting, a whole new kind of privilege is revealed. The delegate appears to be well off and travelling in style, sitting next to a famous Hollywood actress in his business-class plane seat. When he reaches the protest, though, his experience of living in a country where officially sanctioned violence is common affects his understanding of the protests:

He listened to the whistles and something like a bagpipe — could it be a bagpipe? — and he imagined Colombo, 1983, when those sticks were splitting open heads[,] and he watched in absolute awe and a sort of admiration and disbelief as a line of cops stood on the opposite corner and watched the demonstrators peacefully pass.

Trying to get to his meeting, Charles becomes inadvertently caught up in the protest. His wonder at the lack of violence causes him to slightly misinterpret the police mood and think that he will be helped to reach his destination. When the police treat him the same way as the other troublemakers a young man tries to help him. When Charles reveals he’s a delegate, the man laughs awkwardly. “Oh shit. I’m so sorry. We’re out here to protect countries like yours.”

Charles nodded, thinking, Protect countries like mine? What did he imagine the Third World to be? […]

As if every soul that had ever breathed the air of Sri Lanka — the Third World — had lived a miserable ill-begotten life. Died a nameless, unremarkable death. Charles looked around. It was a strange idea. Did these people imagine America to be a place lacking in sorrow? Suffering?

And yet, there was something distinctly American about it all, a fundamental difference in perspective and place — in how they saw themselves in the world. And this was what made it so American — not that they felt compassion for mistreated workers three continents away, workers they had never seen or known, whose world they could not begin to understand, not that they felt guilty about their privilege, no, not that either, but that they felt the need to do something about it. That they felt they had the power to do something about it. That was what made it so American. That they felt they had the power to do something — they assumed they had that power. They had been born with it — the ability to change the world — and had never questioned its existence, an assumption so massive as to remain completely unseen. The power and the responsibility to protect the people they imagined as powerless. The poor defenseless people of the Third World.

The reader must wonder at the similarity between this missionary attitude and the readiness to bomb countries for violating their citizens’ civil rights or for not being liberal democracies. On the streets of Seattle, Charles — the least developed character of the novel, whose colonial, gentlemanly upbringing collides with the newer world where capital reigns over honour and respect — is the thorn in everybody’s side, protestors, police and delegates alike. He comes further down the pecking order even than non-white protestors from the US: despite his suit and his status asa delegate (not to mention the fact of his not having committed an arrestable offence) he still gets arrested.

armorgasAfter Charles had been introduced as a complicating mechanism, the middle of the novel drags slightly, with not quite enough momentum or propulsion from the protest, which is itself at something of a brief standstill or standoff. Tear gas has been fired; now the protesters are simply enduring rather than moving forward. The plot here is provided in part by King’s back story. There is a significant reason why she cannot risk being arrested, based on rather shocking revelations about her earlier activism. While the history illuminates certain aspects of her character and John Henry’s, both bearing out and contradicting Charles’s assessment of the protestors, it is not as compelling or immediate as Victor’s story. Neither of the protestors has been made sympathetic enough for the reader to simply allow their flaws as part and parcel of an ordinary human.

The closer we get to the end of the novel, the more violent the protests become. The police reaction is way out of proportion to the situation, partially contradicting Charles’s initial interpretation of the situation, which he saw as much more benign and carnivalesque than any real revolutionary protest, in both the demonstrators’ convictions and the police reaction.

Many of the characters muddle their way through the novel to some kind of mental position or opinion somewhat removed from the one they started the day with, except for John Henry and his police counterpart Park, who both seem stuck permanently in the same groove, unable to comprehend that their experiences do not always fit their preconceptions. These opinion shifts are not to be confused with progress — the world is not a better place because of what some of the characters have learned.

sunil-yapaYapa’s largely well-orchestrated novel is written in powerful, exhilarating prose that resembles — but is not — speech. Victor and Ju in particular have their complex emotions revealed through lively, visceral writing. Yapa has a gift for sketching the ambiguities of personality and human nature, although a few of his characters are a little on the thin side. King and John Henry in particular function more as stand-ins for their beliefs and positions, their back stories deliberately studded with artificial key moments in the service of providing nuance. But Yapa’s complication of the protest is anything but thin. The only certainty remaining at the close of the action is the echo of Victor’s words from early on: the police are there to protect power, not the people. This contradicts the assertions of Ju and Chief Bishop, leaving Park as the true representative of the police, while Victor, the only protester to have conflicted feelings about the event itself and the political positions championed by the demonstrators, is left as the only realistic option for dissent. By the end of the novel we are disillusioned with everyone, protestors and police alike. Of course another world is possible, but we can’t help wondering, like Charles and Chief Bishop, whether we have long since passed the point where that other world might have been better than this one.

JC Sutcliffe’s book reviews and writing have appeared in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the TLS, the Guardian and the Literary Review of Canada.