THE BLOG
02/01/2016 12:38 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2017

Sunil Yapa's Debut: A Fist To the Heart

In Colum McCann's latest book, Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House, 2015), a young soldier looks out over the Kerengal valley in Afghanistan, minding an outpost as the New Year dawns. The story carries echoes of Italo Calvino's masterpiece, If On A Winter's Night a Traveler (1979), where half the book is about a reader attempting to read the title story; in McCann's version, the story is about an author attempting to write a story. It is brilliantly done, with all the questions that could be asked of a writer attempting to make a leap of imagination into unfamiliar--yet politically loaded--territory, being asked and answered by the writer himself. For example, this: "(Are there any female engagement teams in the Kerengal Valley?) (Is there even such a thing as a Browning M-57?)" Acknowledging a lack of familiarity is one way to fictionalize a place (there is a Korangal Valley in North Eastern Afghanistan), and a possible event.

I read the McCann in the wake of finishing his student, Sunil Yapa's, Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size of a Fist, (Lee Boudreaux Books, 2016), a book inspired by the 1999 demonstrations against the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in America's single socialist-leaning city, Seattle. McCann's gorgeous blurb on the cover (he calls the book "a literary molotov cocktail to light up the dark"), is justified: Yapa makes an important contribution toward documenting this moment in the overall history of activism in the United States, a service that it seems only literature is able to provide for this country. As pointed out in the closing pages of the novel itself, and in the many glowing reviews that have followed the publication of the novel--and in light of the undeniable energy of the prose, surely those are deserved-- the WTO protests were not adequately covered in the media. This is no great surprise, of course, to those brave thousands who, inspired by the anti-austerity protests in Spain and initiated by the Canadian anti-consumerist group, Adbusters, occupied Zucotti Park in 2011. That is a tale still waiting to be written, though Molly Crabapple, it's celebrated cartoon archivist has addressed some of it in her debut, Drawing Blood (Harper Collins, 2015).

Yet to write not of an imagined place and imagined events but rather a real place and an historic event, as McCann did in his masterpiece Transatlantic (2013) for instance, raises the stakes for any writer. Yapa's novel chronicles the jittery political awakening of no fewer than seven major characters, six of whom represent the face of America's difficulties and political upheavals: mixed-race marriages (Bishop, Chief of Police), the weather underground (Kingfisher, circa Earth Liberation Front), cultural appropriation (John Henry, circa Jim-Crow), race-riots (the Guatemalan Ju, circa Rodney King), police brutality and domestic terrorism (Officer Park, circa Oklahoma City), serial escapism (Victor, the pot-smoking accidental activist), and one singular representative of the "globe" in globalization, Charles Wickamasinghe, a well-meaning, earnest, mostly clueless, Sri Lankan Deputy Minister of Finance and Planning.

The first six of these characters hurtle through the book at breakneck speed, a pace that reflects the charge that attends the moment of protest and crack-down. It is a pace that makes each American sound just like the next one, blurring them into their individual clichés much as a quick look at a riot scene might do except in the hands of a skilled photographer who manages to stop and keep movement going in a single frame. It is an authorial choice that seems to have crossed over into the editorial, with both easy sermonizing and romanticism left to blight the prose on occasion: most readers don't need to be told that Subcomandante Marcos was the leader of the Zapatistas or that Monsanto was a chemical company, and it is only those who have never protested who imagine that even the most lust-fuelled protests take the form of rolling around in the newsprint of mimeographed zines until the script comes off on bodies to be examined, later, in the light of the moon.

Of the seven, only Dr. Wickramasinghe, is burdened with a more complex duty: to be himself, a vaguely lascivious man softened by junkets and a distinguished one propelled by service, both proud and groveling, both the groomed scion and the downtrodden peasant, simultaneously ridiculed and also rising, quite literally, off the pavement, to become the noble savage improbably taking notes from the protestors clustered around the one man who would "understand," "listen," and "consider." Wickramasinghe, like George Mitchell and Frederick Douglass in Transatlantic, is asked to occupy a literary space that must be both imaginative and brutally rooted in the specifics of history. One cannot help but wonder if the homage paid to a beloved teacher through mimicry landed the misshapen and poorly directed Wickramasinghe in this novel, diluting what could otherwise have been a stronger tribute to America's music-and-slogan-laden tradition of resistance, for while the book is meticulously researched, with Yapa diving into archival texts, photographs, and video, this pivotal character and his country's history apparently did not merit an equal investment.

In his essay, "The Reconquest of Reality," Robert Stone wrote that, "honorable lies told in the name of the big picture corrupt." That particular brand of corruption is clearly evident in this novel. In one paragraph, Dr. Wikramasinghe bemoans the members at an exclusive enclave in Colombo, for not considering those around them without the medicine and doctors to make them well. This, though Sri Lanka is one of those nations around the world where, unlike in the United States, the government provides free healthcare to all of its citizens and where the same physicians often serve in both free and fee-paying private hospitals. Simple facts, as well as Sri Lanka's tortured decades of recent upheaval and war, are falsified in the telling in awareness that no ordinary American reader could possibly care about the truths of another country. From the small (Royal College is not a university, it is the most prestigious public secondary school for boys in the nation), to the large (Sri Lanka's civil war pre-dates the riots of 1983, and the riots of 1983--that lead to another quarter century of harrowing war-- did not begin with the rebels attacking a police station), to the preposterous (Sri Lanka was a member of the WTO by January of 1995, four full years before the protests in Seattle), Yapa treats the country, as a writer, in precisely the same way that the instruments of capitalism treat both workers and protestors in his novel. The greatest irony of the book is that, thanks to the way it uses and abuses Dr. Wickramasinge and his nation of origin, Yapa portrays more clearly than any protest, the violence perpetrated against those that Americans consider bit-part players in the grand scheme of their lives.

It would of course be convenient if the people of the "globe" were quite the stumbling, ill-informed, misguided fools that they are asked to be in this book, fools requiring the intervention of America's Kingfishers and John Henrys to kneel down on salubrious hippie streets in order to break free; inconvenient truth though it is, they aren't. And neither are those Americans who truly do fight the good fight every day. Steps away from the scene of the protests, that same week, had gathered 2,500 Americans and internationals--from Ottowa to New Delhi, from Minneapolis to Accra, from Amsterdam to Addis Ababa--brilliant intellectuals who had spoken at Benaroya Hall at a teach-in organized by Jerold Irwin (Jerry) Mander, considered the Father of the Anti-Globalization movement. Such people would muddy the easy narrative, however, and so we have the bewildered, dithering waffler to represent the best of the so-called Third World. Dr. Wickramasinghe himself is given a line to describe the presumptuousness of those that claim to "protect countries like his," a line which could be uttered with equal dismay at the way he and his country are used to add an empty and prolonged flourish to this otherwise significant book: "What a violence of the spirit to not know the world."

Sunil Yapa's father worked as a consultant for the World Bank. Mine resisted its capitalist pressures and brutal advocacy of Structural Adjustment Policies as a Civil Servant in the Sri Lankan government including, for eight years, at the Ministry of Finance. Yapa has grown up in the United States, I grew up in Sri Lanka. Our respective countries run in our blood and on our minds. It stands to reason that we would uphold and articulate the particular ethos of each of our countries of origin, the countries that make up the center of our hearts. This then is a book that ought to be read not as I might wish it to be, a novel that speaks equally of and for the raped, pillaged, and plundered across the world, but as Yapa clearly intends: a compassionate look at how Americans view themselves as actors upon a stage which alludes to but does not ultimately regard the people of that world as equals. It is a singular achievement to accurately portray a specific--if unnaturally cross-sectional-- cast of Americans who are flawed, pitiful, wrong, and willing to throw themselves into fights that, in this iteration, are more about the drama and excitement of the protest than about necessary outcomes.

I will have to make peace with the fact that it is my country that becomes grist for the mill in the telling, and that, without any incentive to recalibrate the details of this story for reader, publisher, and critic alike, this will become what Americans who read it know of that country in which 20.48 million non-fictional people live.