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The date is November 30, 1999. A group of protesters is on lockdown, blockading the intersection at Sixth and Union in downtown Seattle. Other groups are doing the same in the intersections that surround the Washington State Convention Center. They, along with thousands of other activists clogging the city’s streets, are attempting to shut down the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference, scheduled to take place at the Center. They are succeeding, but the police are agitated. A confrontation is imminent.
This is a scene we should all find familiar. It is the penultimate moment of the massive protests against globalism that took over Seattle at the tail end of a century dominated by markets, when a global system of American-style democratic capitalism seemed inevitable. A defining event in the history of this city, the protests would become a harbinger of a new protest movement, an embarrassment to our city leaders, and fodder for numerous nonfiction books and films.
It is also the scene of Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. Yapa’s protest is not the same as the one you will find in history books, but one formed from sensory memory, years of contextualizing research, and the personal history of an author who was never there. It’s dangerous territory for a novel to rewrite recent history. Yet Yapa’s story does not pretend to be fact. Rather, the book seeks to unpack a greater truth at play when people go to war with a system they cannot escape.
It does so by following seven characters—a pair of officers, a pair of activists, a delegate, the chief of police, and a young man who appears to belong to no tribe—all of whom arrive at the intersection of Sixth and Union through different means. Each carries a conflicted past and mixed motivations. Personal histories clash as the day’s events unfold in blood and tear gas to the soundtrack of thousands of voices chanting. Befitting the hectic scene, Yapa’s writing is crisp and quick. He toggles back and forth from the external, where his characters intensely catalogue the dangers that surround them, to the internal, where the dangers are less well-defined. The emotional intensity does at times wander into sentimentality, but overall the characters are well-drawn. They live, they breathe, and they bleed.
Yapa says that one of his goals was to write about “empathy as a revolutionary act,” so it’s not surprising that as an author he fully inhabits these characters. But it wasn’t easy.
“When I started the project I didn’t really realize what I was getting myself into,” Yapa says from Montreal, where he is visiting his girlfriend during a break in the book tour that will land him in Seattle this week. “I just started writing some characters. I thought of the ideas and I just started writing. Then I was 100 pages in and I thought, I need to go to Seattle.”
Yapa had been to Seattle before, for a six-month stint as a stoned, drifting 19-year-old. It took a long time for him to return, though. The journey began on a beach in Puerto Rico in 2009 while on winter break from his MFA program at Hunter College. There he read Libra, Don Delillo’s fictional account of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald written 25 years after the assassination of JFK. “I was casting around for novel ideas, and I was blown away by the idea that you could have a historical novel that was about recent history and that was particularly American,” he says.
The WTO protests sprang to mind. A Penn State student at the time, Yapa had watched from a great distance and with great interest as the tear-gas canisters flew. He was an economic-geography major, studying the machinations of globalization while following in the footsteps of his college-professor father, who also worked as an advisor to the World Bank. As a budding novelist, he thought there might be something in the protest for him to explore. After returning from Puerto Rico, he began his research and came across Alexander Cockburn’s 2000 recounting of the protests, 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond. He began reading the stories of the protests and looking closely at the photographs taken by Allan Sekula.
“There is one of a woman on her knees, in one of the intersections, surrounded by people,” Yapa recalls. “Long red hair, obviously has been hit by a baton or something and she is bleeding from her forehead. What looks like a stranger is tending to her wound and her hands are clasped together in front of her face, so she is praying or maybe just in pain. That really struck me and it really exemplified the protest. I thought, What is this woman doing here and what is new about the world that there is a protest where this woman is willing to be beaten or tear-gassed for the rights of people in a country three continents away, the rights of a kid who makes shoes in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka?”
A year later, Yapa was in the Labor Archives at the University of Washington library, digging through 25 boxes of materials that had been collected after the smoke had cleared. He read diaries, news articles, and testimonies from the City Council hearing following the protests. He found VHS tapes that he says hadn’t been viewed in more than a decade. For two weeks he took it all in, essentially living in the basement of the UW library, he says. Then he went hunting for more. He received five hours of police-scanner recordings from the city archive and discovered hours of audio files recorded on the streets that day by sound artist Christopher DeLaurenti. “That kind of research really gave the texture to the book,” he says. “Having those resources really just opened it up for me.”
Still, Yapa is adamant that, while his novel is a reflection of the truth, it is not meant to be true.
A Pennsylvania native who currently lives in Woodstock, N.Y., Yapa is not of this city. To the attentive Seattle reader, there will be reminders of this, pieces of the landscape that were never really there: the “gray project towers to the north” that the novel’s 19-year-old hero Victor sees as he walks to the protest; the sawdust on the floor of Pike Place Market where the Sri Lankan delegate is manhandled by an aggressive cop. And then there are the outright omissions. The infamous Black Bloc anarchists are never mentioned; neither are the labor marchers who arrived from Husky Stadium to support the blockade or the closing of the ports up and down the West Coast. Most challenging, though, are the intentional departures, which include casting an entirely new police chief to play the role infamously bungled by Norm Stamper.
For a reader who lived through the WTO protests, these departures could very well distract to the point of frustration. Yapa understands this and expects it. But he also hopes that readers can make room for one more perspective.
“It’s one story among a thousand,” Yapa says. “But if anything came out of the protest, it’s the idea of consensus and horizontal democracy and the idea that we all tell our own story and we all bring our own history to the telling of the story. So I brought my specific history of being biracial and having a dad from Sri Lanka who was a World Bank consultant and that whole history of being a geographer; I brought that to this.”
Mark Baumgarten is Editor in Chief of Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com or 206-467-4374. Follow him on Twitter.