Heart of Gold: Sunil Yapa's Global Vision | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Heart of Gold: Sunil Yapa's Global Vision 

Last Updated: 09/19/2016 12:48 pm

click to enlarge FRANCO VOGT
  • Franco Vogt
Sunil Yapa is not sure what time zone he's in. The Woodstock-based novelist just returned from a book festival in Australia. On the first leg of the 20-hour flight, he watched two movies, took a nap, and woke up with five hours still to go. "There's a panic moment: get me off this plane! Then you realize it's over Fiji."

Yapa sits upstairs at Joshua's Cafe, drinking iced dirty chai and staring down a Super Falafel sandwich the size of a Buick, which sits untouched for nearly two hours as he discusses his breakout debut novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist (Little, Brown & Co., 2016).

Even jet-lagged, he's a high-octane talker: intense, eloquent, and impassioned. Your Heart is a street-level view of the WTO protests that rocked Seattle in 1999, following seven disparate characters: activists, cops, a Sri Lankan diplomat, and Victor, a biracial stoner who winds up across the barricades from his estranged father—the beleaguered chief of police—as the city melts down.

Though the novel pulses with you-are-there urgency, Yapa did not participate in the Battle of Seattle, but discussed the unfolding drama in a literature class taught by Amitava Kumar, who now teaches at Vassar. "As a person of color, I had issues with strategy of mass arrests," Yapa explains. Arrested at 17 for possession of marijuana, he spent a night in jail, an experience he had no wish to repeat. "In hindsight, I realized they had civil disobedience training in how to get arrested. It might have been an empowering experience."

Certainly writing about it has galvanized him. He'll hit six continents this year on book tour and other travel; if Antarctica had indie bookstores, he'd probably travel there too. This seems apt for a novel about globalization, written over six years in 17 different locations, from Manhattan to a beach hut in Chile and a wintry Greek island with more sheep than people. 

Yapa grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, where his Sri Lankan-born father is an economic geography professor specializing in poverty studies. "I knew at nine that I wanted to be a writer, but I absorbed the idea that being an artist was self-involved," he explains. "My parents are a teacher and nurse—the idea of service was very big." Nevertheless, "reading and writing were beloved in my house. My mother has read more than anyone I know, except possibly me," Yapa says. "Libraries are my church."

A biracial National Merit scholar, he was offered free rides to several colleges, but turned them down, to his parents' horror. "My father's an immigrant; my mother is a nurse/anesthetistist, with three advanced degrees. It was the biggest deal in the world that I wasn't going to college." Finally he agreed to enroll, dropping out of two colleges before graduating from Penn State.

"My whole life has been a crooked road, interrupted," Yapa says. After college, he and a friend went to teach English in Changzhou, China. "Within a month I'd scrapped my plans to get a PhD. I decided I was a writer." He wrote sketches and short fiction, practicing descriptions of things like the smell of the river outside his apartment: "a bouquet of human shit, industrial run-off, and burning rubber."

They'd been hired for a year, but the SARS epidemic cut their stay short. With eight months suddenly free, they headed for Chile, where Yapa's step-grandfather offered his vacant apartment. "If American cultural norms don't support writing, Chilean norms do. He was so proud of me," Yapa says.

This launched a string of world travels. Back in the USA, the pair found a job selling posters on college campuses. For two months each year, they crisscrossed the country in an oversized truck, erecting pop-up shops; their bestselling poster was Bob Marley toking up. The company's top earners for six years running, they saved enough to fund ten-month road trips to Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, and India; Yapa wrote 500 pages of unpublished prose. 

He enrolled at VONA/Voices, a summer workshop for writers of color founded by Junot Diaz. Workshop leader Chitra Divakaruni urged him to apply to the University of Houston, where she taught. He did, but dropped out again. Then he took another summer workshop at London Film School, Ellis Freeman's "Writers' Gym," which he calls "life-changing."

Yapa applied to the MFA program at Hunter College, where he studied with Colum McCann, Peter Carey, Claire Messud, and Nathan Englander. "These are your teachers; holy shit!" he exclaims. "They were working writers, at such a high level. They taught us on Monday, and Tuesday they went back to their own work. That made all the difference. That and their generosity."

After McCann vetoed his first two novel ideas, Yapa came back from a break reenergized. "I'd been reading Don DeLillo's Libra, and it blew me away. I realized you could write about recent American history, in a very American vernacular. If I wanted to do that, what would I write about?" When he thought of the WTO riots, "it was like the three poles of my life—writing, economic geography, and service/political activism—all fused. I just knew. Every cell in your body gets magnetized." His mentor agreed.

By luck, Yapa's classmate Tennessee Jones had been at the Seattle protests, giving Yapa a bookshelf of activist zines and invaluable insights. Yapa also did research at the University of Washington, which archived 25 boxes of primary source material: firsthand accounts, Truth & Reconciliation transcripts, VHS tapes, costumes, and photos, including one with the slogan that became his book's title, coined by woodcut artist Dalia Sapon-Shevin.

He left Hunter with 130 finished pages and returned to Chile, where he spent weekdays focusing monastically on his work and weekends eating pescado al pobre on the beach with a girlfriend from Santiago. By December, he'd finished a draft. Against his girlfriend's wishes, he went back to sell posters, and the laptop containing his 604-page draft was stolen from a hotel room. 

In despair, he holed up at his parents' house, watching "an unhealthy amount of TV." But the book wouldn't let go. "I felt like I had a disease and this book was it."

The lost first draft was "a post-modern pastiche, a clever-young-man book" with 60 characters and deconstructed maps. Instead of trying to reproduce it, Yapa asked himself, "Why do I read? The answer was simple: characters. I care about people, their worldview. What are the consequences of that worldview and the decisions they make? I don't give a shit about ripped-up maps!" 

He whittled his cast down to seven, honing in on emotional stakes. Six years and many rejections later, he found agent P. J. Mark, whose notes further refined the manuscript. It sold within 24 hours. Esteemed editor Lee Boudreaux chose Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist to launch her new imprint. "That was risky—I'm a total unknown," Yapa says.

He considers the novel an outgrowth of the protests. "Caring about people in other countries is a revolutionary act in a globalized world. Empathy is radical. Our connections are literal. This lettuce I'm eating,"—he still hasn't taken a bite—"the shirt I'm wearing; okay, that's fair-trade. But these shorts, where were they made? The sweatshop is the most obvious example, but what does it mean to start thinking about that?"

Yapa's stoked now. He orders another chai. "There's been an incredible response to this as a debut novel. But for a book about social justice? I thought it might get picked up by some small press and get shelved with all the lefty shit we never read, but I didn't care. I started writing this six years ago, before Occupy, before the Arab Spring, before Black Lives Matter. But now it strikes all these chords. I realized in Australia that I'm on this international book tour because this very American protest has resonated with people around the world. There's a basic awareness of the way the global system works, that our lives of easy convenience are built on someone else's labor," he asserts. "The reaction to the book—not just that it's positive, but that it's touched people—that really moves me. The book articulates that sense of a connected world." 

Last week he visited an aboriginal women's center in the outback and spotted a photo of Michelle Obama on their inspiration board; next month he'll go to South Africa. "You can't underestimate how connected we are," Yapa says. "I'm so tired. I've got back problems, hip problems. But to travel the world talking about this book that's about connection, knowing the way globalization works is not right, is so energizing. I could talk about it for hours." He actually has; a waitress is setting out evening candles as he finally picks up his sandwich. "The book moves from an investigation of loneliness and global inequality to a question of what's beyond anger, outrage, despair. It's about looking for and discovering the idea of love and hope in the lives of these people. It's not an angry rant. It moves into this other space."

Indeed it does. When I get home, I open the copy of Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist Sunil Yapa signed for me. In bold capital letters, it says MAD WITH HOPE.

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