Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

4th February 2016

by Sunil Yapa

Below, author Sunil Yapa explains the real-life photo inspiration behind Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist.

"People often ask me where the title came from…and what on Earth it might mean.

Well the title, YOUR HEART IS A MUSCLE THE SIZE OF A FIST, comes from the protests themselves.  It was something that people said to one another in the crowd and became a lasting legacy of the day. Later I realized it originated with a wood cut from artist, activist, librarian Dalia Shevin. But I first discovered it in Seattle, buried in a basement library at the University of Washington with a tremendous archive of WTO related material.  That literally nobody had looked at until I got there in 2010. Imagine 15 boxes of photos, signs, VHS videos, firsthand accounts written and sent in and put in these boxes and just waiting for somebody to come in and find them.  I was down there in the basement going through people’s diaries of the day and I came across a photo of somebody holding a sign that read YOUR HEART IS A MUSCLE THE SIZE OF A FIST and I thought yes.  Yes, yes, yes.  Because this is a book about 7 people at a protest, yes.  But it is, also, at its core, a book about empathy.  About courage. About how caring for other people—simple person to person connection—can sprout wings and fly across borders and walls and fences.

Years ago, traveling in Sri Lanka—where my father is from—I remember wondering if I’d just passed the child who made my shoes for 60 cents an hour—Nikes I paid $200 for at home.  And so I set out to write a novel about the collisions of globalization—the way our lives overlap with lives lived halfway across the globe in surprising, and, funny, and, yes, sometimes heart-breaking ways.

Later—as I actually started writing—I realized I was way out on a limb and was probably, almost definitely, going to fall flat on my face. And then I discovered Victor, the main character of the book.  And his father the Chief of Police.  And I realized that Victor’s mother had passed away, that Victor had run away from home to travel the world and was now back in Seattle, both longing for his Dad and avoiding the hell out of him. I realized that this father and son, as much as they are angry with each other, they are also unable to avoid each other, the gravity of grief and love pulling on them like two huge planets headed for collision. 

Allan Sekula’s photos were some of the first photos I came across when I started investigating the Seattle Protests. (I say “investigating” because I wasn’t even sure I was going to write a novel yet, but I was deeply intrigued. (And hoping))   One of Sekula’s photos in the series, “Waiting for Tear Gas” shows a red-haired woman in a leather jacket kneeling on the pavement with her hands pressed together in prayer or just pain, while a young man kneels beside her tending to a wound on her head. Looking at this photo, I had to ask myself what would make a woman like this risk her body for the wellbeing of a person three continents away.  What kind of courage, I wondered, would it take?  What a new and strange and beautiful kind of protest. 

Looking at this photo,  I know what the words carved above the door of the book will be. A line from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. She’s talking about a black man on the subway.  About the empty space beside him on the bench and how nobody will sit down to fill it.  Claudia finally stands, crosses the aisle and sits. She doesn’t say anything out loud.  But in her head, Claudia says, “if anyone asks you to move, you will tell them: We are traveling as a family.”"

*Please note portions of this essay have appeared in a different form in The Library Journal in the US.


An explosive, heart-stopping debut of protest and riot, from an incredible new literary talent - a name to watch out for . . .

'A raw and rare talent . . . Yapa strides forward with a literary molotov cocktail to light up the dark'
- Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin

1999. Victor, homeless after a family tragedy, finds himself pounding the streets of Seattle with little meaning or purpose. He is the estranged son of the police chief of the city, and today his father is in charge of one of the largest protests in the history of Western democracy.

But in a matter of hours reality will become a nightmare. Hordes of protesters - from all sections of society - will test the patience of the city's police force, and lives will be altered forever: two armed police officers will struggle to keep calm amid the threat of violence; a protester with a murderous past will make an unforgivable mistake; and a delegate from Sri Lanka will do whatever it takes to make it through the crowd to a meeting - a meeting that could dramatically change the fate of his country. In amongst the fray, Victor and his father are heading for a collision too.

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, set during the World Trade Organization protests, is a deeply charged novel showcasing a distinct and exciting new literary voice.

'A stunningly orchestrated work of narrative power. This novel marshals all the vital forces of our existence' - Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names

'Its heart beats and bleeds on every page . . . this book is delightfully, forcefully alive' - Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints

'A full-throated chorus of voices on all sides . . . Yapa has achieved something special, a story that is as tragic as it is relevant, as unflinching as it is humane. Watch out' - Smith Henderson, author of Fourth of July Creek

About the author

Sunil Yapa holds an MFA from Hunter College. The son of a Sri Lankan father and a mother from Montana, USA, Yapa has lived in many places around the world, including Argentina, China and India, as well as London, Montreal and New York City. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is his first book.

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