Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist
James Baldwin’s essay collection Notes of a Native Son slaughters a number of sacred cows, but none so sacrosanct as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In a 1949 piece entitled “Everybody’s protest novel”, the writer sinks his teeth into Harriet Beecher Stowe’s canonical work: “a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women”. Baldwin goes on to argue that this cornerstone of American protest literature has two insuperable flaws.
The first is that Stowe’s book flattens its human dimension to fit the abstract cause of Abolition. By evading the ambiguity, complexity and paradox of individual experience, suggests Baldwin, the author ended up producing a polemical pamphlet disguised as a work of fiction. The second fault concerns representing the Other. So terrified is Stowe of the black man at the heart of her book that she strips Uncle Tom of his physical, carnal substance in order to justify his worth:
His triumph is metaphysical, unearthly; since he is black, born without the light, it is only through humility, the incessant mortification of the flesh, that he can enter into communion with God or man.
Sixty-odd years later, encountering the latest upgrade in that long tradition of protest lit, it’s worth asking how much or how little has changed since Baldwin’s critique. Sunil Yapa, author of Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, is no prudish God-botherer but the bi-racial child of a Sri Lankan father and white American mother. He has studied creative writing and economic geography, and travelled widely throughout the rich West and developing world. His debut is written in full consciousness of its radical antecedents – name-checking everyone from Che Guevara to Chomsky – and with a tutored eye to those shaping forces that have brought about the contemporary issue most comparable to 19th-century slavery: that is, globalisation.
The novel’s story largely takes place over a single day in 1999, during the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation’s deliberations in that city. And in style and narrative progress it seeks to harness something of the pure kinetic energy of the moment. So much has happened since then, however, that it is initially hard to summon much interest in a half-forgotten, inconsonant gathering of environmentalists, union supporters, Third World labour-rights groups, Quakers and sundry leftists all bringing their grievance to the coalface of capitalist endeavour.
Yapa’s book reminds us why we should. Since the fall of the twin towers and amid new fronts in the long war in the Middle East, we can see that the emergent world order of today was forged in that period. Whether it is the outsourcing of pollution to China, the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US and a concomitant rise in numbers of low-paid factory workers in the developing world, or the mass privatisation of states’ assets – all of them arise from decisions made by politicians, bankers and bureaucrats in cities such as Seattle during those years. The recently concluded negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership are merely the final flourish of this decades-long process.
But aside from several interstitial chapters in which we share the consciousness of an ageing Sri Lankan politician desperately trying to get to a long-planned meeting with President Clinton, Your Heart concentrates on the streets, on the men and women who array themselves against police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets. Though Yapa is of course careful to narrow the focus enough that we might distinguish some figures in the crowd.
To this end he gives us Victor, a young African-American whose home is a tent beneath a concrete underpass near the demonstration site, and then links him to a world-weary white man in late middle age at the centre of events. Bishop is the chief of police, in charge of ensuring the city blocks are cleared of protesters in time to get the various delegates across town. He also turns out to be Victor’s stepfather: a loving if disciplinarian parent from whom the teen has been alienated for three years, a time during which the precociously intelligent yet damaged youth has bummed his way around the global south.
The boldness of this central coincidence might be forgiven, if the prose that described it were not so febrile and ripe with accompanying cliché. Yapa shoulders in on each of his narrators’ limited third-person perspectives and grants them the same yawping platitudes to mouth.
Whether it is hard-bitten officer Timothy Park, or his colleague, the Guatemalan immigrant Julia, or even veteran protester John Henry’s partner in nonviolence, the feisty Kingfisher (see how the reviewer is obliged into prefab typology), whose actions will set the various interlocking events of the novel in motion, the entire cast of Your Heart performs as a Greek chorus for such hyperventilating disquisition. Though to be fair, just as a stopped clock gives the right time eventually, once the narrative reaches a certain pitch of intensity – the batons rising, tear-gas canisters falling – event and style briefly sync. The effect is undeniably powerful. For a few pages, at least.
At the novel’s conclusion, as we witness Victor being beaten by police officers and thereby achieving a kind of apotheosis, it is hard not to recall Baldwin on Beecher Stowe. Stowe was also well educated, and no backwoods moralist but the scion of a family of preachers and teachers, a member of the young nation’s intellectual and spiritual elite.
Though Yapa makes a great play of the violence threaded through the Seattle riots – and so would seem the very opposite of Stowe’s religiosity – I suspect Baldwin would see a kinship: an extravagant moralism, a reduction of different human dimensions to one-size-fits-all, a piping vacuity designed to drown out deeper lack. “Below the surface of this novel there lies,” wrote Baldwin of Richard Wright’s Native Son, another protest fiction that he regarded as only superficially different from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy.” AF
Little, Brown, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2016 as "Sunil Yapa, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist". Subscribe here.