Sunil Yapa: “Empathy is a Radical Act”
In Conversation with Bethanne Patrick about Race, Writing, and Love
You may know or discover Sunil Yapa because his debut novel Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, not coincidentally the first title released from Little, Brown’s new Lee Boudreaux imprint, is racking up glowing reviews faster than a riot-squad officer can herd protesters into a van (more on riots and protesters shortly).
But I met Sunil Yapa last year at the AWP conference when he was an as-yet-unpublished writer who had just finished a decade of sleeping on his father’s sofa while working on drafts of his book. He spoke freely about how rocky his own road has been and was deservedly excited about his recent debut.
We also engaged in an intense discussion about the thing Yapa and his longtime pal and fellow novelist Peter Mountford (The Dismal Science) call “World Bank Lit:” Fiction that attends to and attempts to decipher our 21st-century global tangle, in particular by noticing economic systems, disparities, and pressure points. Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist takes place in one during the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) riots in Seattle. Several different characters, from a vagrant teenager named Victor to a battle-scarred protest veteran known only as King to the Seattle Chief of Police (who happens to be Victor’s father), interact as a nonviolent protest against the WTO talks takes a frightening turn. Meanwhile. “Intermissions” from a fictional Sri Lankan Minister of Trade, Dr. Charles Wickhramsinghe, provide an unexpected counterpoint to the brouhaha.
It’s a book more than worth reading—it’s worth talking about. So if my 2015 cocktail-fueled chat with Yapa made our telephone interview last week easier, then here’s to whisky and its cross-cultural pleasures.
Bethanne Patrick: How has your life changed since last we met?
Sunil Yapa: How has life changed? I am not living on my dad’s couch anymore! [Laughs] It’s funny, but also so deeply true. The most important thing for me, among many, is that something I wrote and wrote as honestly as I possibly could, something that took six years to write and five years before that to discover a language that was honest and communicating my subject matter, that it’s touched people, reached people, inspired people.
I don’t feel like my talent is being celebrated, I feel like my honesty is being celebrated. Or not even celebrated—responded to, really. Which means that the world and the audience was ready for a book like this, a message of hope. We’ve got a lot of problems, but we’re still ready for a book about protesting, a book about police brutality, in which one of the main characters is a young black man who is beaten brutally but survives and loves. We’re exhausted by our own anger and outrage and looking for reconciliation, looking for something beyond the anger, whatever that might be. In the book I suggest it’s human connection. “Love” is so overused, but yes, it’s that agape love for your fellow human being. Che Guevara said that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. I’m right there with Che.
BP: It’s tough to participate in that true revolution when, as the good Dr. Wickramsinghe says, his country is in the business of “exporting maids.”
SY: That’s right, exactly; the toll that commerce takes on humans—forget about grain and machine parts for a moment—is devastating. Even leaving out the seamier side of things like sex trafficking—well, I think about my dad, who came to the U.S. from Sri Lanka in 1964 in a very common phenomenon safely labeled “the brain drain.” The best and the brightest members of less-developed communities wind up leaving, and we in the U.S. have really thrived on their work and discoveries.
But, to return to “the good doctor,” as you call him: Charles knows that the largest foreign earnings for his country comes from Sri Lankans working as domestics and construction laborers in the Middle East. It’s a really big untold story! Charles wants to draw attention to something that Westerners often don’t think about, let alone factor in to a country’s export status.
BP: Charles is literally dragged through the mud, but when he winds up on a bus filled with weary protesters, he does something quite interesting: He asks them to share their grievances.
SY: This is his moment, when Charles is most interesting to me. Any of us can go to a protest and be so sure, so certain about what we believe, so certain about why we’re there, and then Charles goes and turns it all on its head. This is where he shows his true colors. He could either start screaming at these people, who really are the ones who derailed his entire day and purpose, or… I didn’t know he was going to do that. It told me such much about why he would be in the position he is in to begin with: This is a man who knows how to listen.
That’s essential to my novel, but it only occurred to me in the re-reading: It’s about people listening, and not listening. Bishop’s problem, for example, is that he’s not listening, on any level, whether as a police chief, a citizen, or a father.
BP: Were you at the 1999 Seattle WTO protests? I ask because of King. She is terrified of arrest, and her feelings ring true.
SY: No, I wasn’t at the protests; in 1999 I was in college. But I had been arrested when I was 17, for something else, related to recreational substances… [Laughs] I had spent a night in jail, only one night, thankfully, gratefully. But this is surprising. If you asked me which character was me, I would probably say Victor, with his long hair and illegal habits, but you’ve just shown me that I put part of my own experience into the character of King. All of the characters have bits of my emotional experience and traveling history, but it had never occurred to me that King’s story would come directly from my being a coward, essentially.
BP: You said it, not I, and that’s important because aren’t we all cowards when it comes to the trouble our world is in now?
SY: We’re all sullied. On one level, I wrote a book about protesting and one of the big issues is about economic disparity, and yet here I sit in my clothes, probably sweatshop clothes, there’s no escaping it, you would have to leave the US in a hut made out of twigs and eat berries to escape it! Remember that scene from American Pastoral where the protagonist’s daughter is hiding in Newark and wearing a sort of veil because she doesn’t want to inhale and thereby kill any bacteria…we’re all complicit! Just like us, everyone in the book does something that’s noble and brave and extraordinary, and I think every single one of them also does something that in the heat of the moment that they’re later going to regret.
BP: Even—maybe especially—those who are sworn to protect and serve.
SY: Julia, one of the police officers, was one of my favorite characters to write. How do you write a cop so that she’s not just a cop, but she’s a human? She has a family, and in writing her, I was trying to find ways that I could empathize with her choices and not just fall back into things “as seen on TV.” I also read a lot of genre, especially police procedural, and I hope that helped, although one of the best novelists of all time about police is Richard Price—and I’m not sure if he fits into any single genre.
Like Julia, or “Ju,” I know what it means to miss family. She’s doing her best, in completely conflicting circumstances. In the middle of her day the rules of the game change. She thinks: I want to remember that these are people, not just a problem for me to solve. All through the book she’s trying to negotiate between her profession and her humanity.
BP: Do you mind a process question? How did you develop Julia’s backstory—or not?
SY: [Laughs] I can’t tell you my secrets! All my characters have a lot of backstory, but you know, it’s not backstory—it’s the rest of the story! The novel all takes place in the course of one day, but the characters don’t appear as infants toting guns. I arrived here today for this interview with a history. In charged moments—this isn’t one—we hear ourselves saying things like, Am I actually talking to this woman in front of me? Or am I talking to the girl who broke my heart two years ago? Regardless of what I tell you about the process of my characters’ backstories, what I wanted to show through them is that we’re not always our best selves, or more specifically, that we’re not always reacting to the present moment. That said, I think I’m definitely a guy who figures out my story. I’m steeped in craft. I have two bookshelves of craft books. As Colum McCann says, “Do as much research as possible! And then forget it all.”
BP: We have to talk about Victor. Did you base any of his experience as a biracial character on your own biracial self?
SY: Yes. It was a deliberate choice to explore a character who was biracial; I wanted that experience of living in two worlds. But I decided to change some things—Victor’s father is white, his mother African-American—because I’ll be honest, when I write closer to my own experience, I find it very difficult. I’m fine being vulnerable, but I get tangled up in the details. Part of writing fiction is having a selective lens, knowing that one detail will illuminate ten others. I write personal pieces and diary entries about my own life because even at 38 I still feel like an adolescent when I’m writing about race. I’m still developing my identity about being biracial. It’s not something I have enough artistic distance from to be able to write about precisely with my details.
I’m mystified by racism in general. Race doesn’t really exist, right? We may all be getting closer to one skin color like a beautiful Benetton ad, but the trouble is, while racial experience is personal, racial prejudice is system wide. I’d be OK hearing a racial slur every day if there were no barriers to jobs, benefits, rights. The slurs aren’t the problem. The barriers are the problem.
BP: A heart is a muscle the size of a fist, and a fist can be a weapon—or it can hold a soup ladle. Let’s talk about Victor’s beautiful memories of helping his mother feed the underserved.
SY: I was thinking about this last night. No one has asked me about that scene, but I think you just put your thumb on the heart of the book. Victor learns from his mom in that soup kitchen that complete strangers can be your blood kin. In one of Claudia Rankine’s poems in Citizen she talks about being on a subway and seeing a black man with an empty seat next to him, a seat in which no one who boards the subway car will sit. She takes the seat, writing: “If anyone asks, I’ll say we’re traveling as family.” If something could be carved above the door of my book, that would be it. And like every family, it’s a little dysfunctional.
We live in a world in which our lives are linked with people thousands of miles away. Each person has a real life. Empathy is a radical act, particularly when you use it to connect with people who are very different from you. Loving others is wonderful, but caring for others is profound.
BP: Take that one step towards your work; how does a novel aid in that process?
SY: Empathy is a profound act of imagination and human connection. In fiction, we imagine ourselves into other people’s experiences. Of course, another word for that is “reading.”