When I first arrived back in Australia in January, there was naturally an element of culture shock — no longer speaking German in every day contexts, looking the wrong way when crossing the road, being back amongst familiar places and sounds and smells. There was a lot I was happy to be back for, but part of this adjustment was also being confronted by all the things I’d been happy to leave behind, starting with almost anything to do with Australian politics. So as I read this sentence in the first few pages of Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, I knew I would connect with this novel: ‘It was 1999 in America, he had traveled the world for three years, looking for what he didn’t know, and now here he found himself: absolutely allergic to belief, nineteen years old, and totally alone.’
Thankfully my connection with Victor, the central character of the novel, ends there, but I was drawn to this story by the premise of his discontent. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist takes place on a single day, set during the World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle when anti-capitalist protestors famously clashed with police as they rallied to show their dissatisfaction towards the top-heavy free-trade globalised economy the delegates inside where working together to grow. We follow a cast of characters as they weave themselves throughout the crowds: some protesting, some policing, some trying to make their way into the talks on the other side.
The emotional connection that pulls this novel together is the relationship between Victor and the Chief of Police, Victor’s estranged father Bishop. As we dip in and out of the events of the day, feeling increasingly uneasy about the actions of both Victor’s fellow protestors and the Chief’s police colleagues, it’s this tension as to whether Victor and Bishop will cross paths and what will come of it that contributes to the thrill of the story:
There was the Chief of Police with the megaphone, his father’s amplified voice echoing over the sea of bobbing heads.
“If you do not clear this intersection, you will be the subject of pain and chemical compliance.”
And Victor saying under his breath, “Don’t do it, Dad. Don’t do it.”
It is this ability to keep building the story more and more towards inevitable tragedy that kept me turning page after page in Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. Yapa is able to capture the anger, fear and helplessness of both sides of the protest’s epicentre with real evocation. This moment from Bishop show’s Yapa’s ability to capture the speed of the day, how irritation so quickly turned to rage, causing a teetering peace to quickly collapse:
It seemed like everybody was talking on the same channel, and he felt a despondent anger, a helpless sort of rage as he keyed the radio and pressed it to his mouth.
Bishop here. Did not copy. Please repeat.
Chief! Chief! . . . KRRRCHHH
Fourth and KRRRCCCHHH
Bishop here. Did not copy. Please repeat.
Paper bags of crap. Over.
He stepped to the side. Kicked one of the girls in the leg, then stepped back and kicked the other one in her ribs. Kicked at their linked arms trying to break them apart.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
But where Yapa does some of his best writing is in his portrayal of a delegate to the WTO conference, desperate to secure financial security for his citizens at home. These intermissions from the Sri Lankan Deputy Minister for Finance and Planning as he becomes caught up in the protests, offer the greatest moral questions of the novel. Treated like a protestor by the police and like an evil capitalist by the protestors, yet in reality the delegate sits in the middle of both of these groups as a socialist government minister trying to create more jobs for his country. He knows that if he is not able to sit at the table these jobs will go to whoever else is able to sit there; it’s a global economy where whoever shouts the loudest or offers the cheapest price, wins.
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist doesn’t seek to answer any of the questions it provokes, but it does a brilliant job of raising them to the reader. This is not a technically perfect piece of writing, far from it. At times the phrasing feels clunky and the characters often teeter on feeling like characterisations. But to a certain extent I didn’t care; I still kept churning through this novel at great speed, driven by the drama of a good story. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is the kind of novel we will look back on in years to come, as a snapshot of a modern-day political movement, as well as a beautiful documentation of a contemporary moral dilemma.
As I read this book I was working multiple jobs, trying to build up my savings after returning home. Despite the madness of this time, I felt driven by the glimpse of the life I could see opening up for myself. With enough money in the bank I’ll be able to get my own apartment and start to build a little home for myself. Now that I’m not working nights on top of my regular jobs I will have time to write, to cook, to read, to be with friends. But despite all these silver-linings to come, the last month has been entirely pragmatic. So I found myself relying on easy recipes that can be thrown together without any bother when I had come home exhausted, or when I was eating in a rush before the next shift. One morning my dear friend Stella made us smashed peas on toast with herbs and feta cheese, a perfect weekend breakfast to make you feel like you’re treating yourself at home without having to shower, leave the house, or spend fifteen-dollars on avocado toast at a cafe. So one night at home I made this very simple pasta dish based on that idea. I left some frozen peas in a bowl to come back to room temperature while I boiled the water for the pasta. While the pasta cooked I mashed the peas roughly, adding chilli, garlic and lemon zest along with some chopped parsley. Once the spaghetti was cooked and drained this pea mixture was mixed through the pasta with some olive oil and topped with some more parsley. Grated parmesan or crumbled feta cheese would make for a perfect final touch. This is the kind of meal that makes perfect leftovers too, as it tastes just as good as a room-temperature salad the next day. You could easily use any greens available too: blanched spinach, kale or broccoli would all work well. When things begin to feel out of control it’s nice to take a moment and do something to look after yourself, as you sit and think about all the nice things that await on the other side.
As a young professional struggling to gain job security, there’s a lot to identify with in the discontent expressed in Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. This recent (and much shared) piece in The Monthly shared the issues of my generation better than anything I’d seen before it: ‘The Boomer Supremacy’ by Richard Cooke. For those in the United States heading towards election, I was interested in this piece on VICE: ‘Which Presidential Candidate Would Be Best for Broke Young People?’ by Mike Pearl.