Interview with Sunil Yapa: Redefining Home
Sunil Yapa visited Pacific University as part of the Visiting Writers Series hosted by the English Department. Mikelyn Rochford and Kristen Buehner sat down with Sunil and discussed his novel Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist and how it ties in with Silk Road’s theme of displacement and redefining home.
His debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, was released in 2016 and follows the narratives of seven characters during a day of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. His novel is the lead title for Lee Boudreaux’s eponymous new imprint at Little Brown & Company. Published in January 2016, the novel is a Time Magazine and an Amazon Best Books of the Year So Far, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, and an Indies Introduce and Indies Next Pick. The New Yorker writes, “Fast-paced and unflinching…Yapa vividly evokes rage and compassion.” And Ron Charles writes in The Washington Post, “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist ultimately does for the WTO protests what Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night did for the 1967 March on the Pentagon, gathering that confrontation in competing visions of what happened and what it meant.” The Seattle Times writes, “Yapa’s melding of fact and fiction, human frailty and geopolitics, is a genuine tour-de-force.” Yapa holds an MFA from CUNY- Hunter College where he was a Hertog Fellow, and a BA from Penn State where he studied Economic Geography. The biracial son of a Sri Lankan father and a mother from Montana, Yapa has lived around the world, including time living in Greece, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, China, and India, as well as London, Montreal, and New York City, and has made a home of many of the places he has visited.
Kristen and Mikelyn: Could you speak to the theme of displacement through your book and experiences?
Sunil: I set out to write a book that wasn’t just about my experiences. I had been writing short stories before then that were bad Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz experiences. I really set out in this novel to write about experiences that were not my own. The funny thing is that when I go back and reread the book I realize that the characters were all me—their interiority and experiences are all me. Even the cop. The other thing that I realize when I reread the book is that it is about loneliness and a desire to belong. The novel is also about tribes and who gets to decide the tribe. Is it the tribe who owns the city or the cops?
Victor is closest in experience to me—he’s biracial and living in Seattle and sells weed (a terrible idea I would have had at that age). He is so desperate to belong somewhere that he is willing to put himself in the most dangerous position—lockdown. In real life, no protestor would allow someone who wasn’t trained to be in that position to go into lockdown. But he is so desperate to belong to a family that he is willing to be vulnerable. It is all my experience. The novel is a lonely and alienated book, and on some level I have to make the connection that I am lonely and alienated: lonely in the deeper sense that I feel without a tribe or without a home. I don’t feel connected to a nation, which is a group of people who share a set of beliefs.
Kristen and Mikelyn: Do you feel that experience of loneliness and isolation comes from an experience of growing up between two cultures?
Sunil: It has a lot to do with growing up. I didn’t know that I wasn’t white until I was 21. Brown is a social indicator and indicator of tribe and belonging. I didn’t understand what it indicated. And I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. I genuinely think I have post-traumatic stress from growing up in rural Pennsylvania.
I feel safe in New York. I feel normal in New York. I genuinely own a camouflage hat that I have in my car that I wear when in Pennsylvania, and people are so much more comfortable around me. I’m a brown hillbilly so I can wear the hat.
Kristen and Mikelyn: This goes along with Victor’s story—how he is trying to mold himself to find family, to redefine a home due to his displacement.
Sunil: I don’t have a physical place that feels like home, but I’m also a country boy, so I don’t feel rooted to New York City in a lot of ways. I have a white noise generator because I live on the corner of 57th and 10th, and it’s so loud. The white noise machine has a setting for “city noise” with taxis honking.
Redefining home has been my life project so far, and it also has to do with redefining family. Obviously home and family are intimately connected.
There is a huge chasm that happens on immigration. I don’t even think Jhumpa Lahiri captures it. I would compare it to colonialism—people escaping colonialism to come to the heart of the empire. It’s not just that my dad came from Sri Lanka and didn’t have a warm coat. My dad left Sri Lanka in 1964, not knowing if he would ever see his mother or father again. As Junot Díaz said, it would be the equivalent of writing science fiction. It is the equivalent of getting on a spaceship to leave an unlivable Earth and going to a prosperous colony on Mars and not knowing if you’d ever be able to come back.
It’s profound. There were basic American cultural skills that my father couldn’t teach me and didn’t understand. It would be the same as if I emigrated to France, and I couldn’t teach my daughter or son certain things.
For instance, the question of what it means to be an American man has a different meaning than what being a man means in South Asia.
The book that most captures this for me is Maus by Art Spiegelman. It’s about how much his dad annoys him. His dad drives him crazy. The book talks about how Art reacts when his father doesn’t want him to throw away a match and he doesn’t understand it. But then he finds out that the reason his dad doesn’t want to throw it away is because he could have used it in a concentration camp.
It is a beautiful realization of how difficult it can be to relate to a parent that survived such displacement, and gaining compassion for the experience that they went through.
That is part of the recalibration of home—understanding new cultural norms but also finding a place to be authentic in a new way. If I were to operate under purely American norms, it wouldn’t feel right to me. If I were to operate under purely Sri-Lankan norms, I’d feel like a total fraud. My home is generally where my friends are. My home is usually where my girlfriend is. I end up making nations of two. I create a nation whose border is the boundary of a bed.
It is also very freeing to not feel confined by cultural norms. I am very comfortable traveling. I don’t feel alienated in Chile. I could be from a lot of places because of my skin color. I can carry my home on my back.
Kristen and Mikelyn: You have traveled a lot, so how has this informed your home and your writing?
Sunil: I think we are all a mystery to ourselves, so I don’t totally understand why I travel. In some ways I traveled because it was cheaper to live in other countries than live in America. I also knew I wasn’t a writer who could work a 9-5 job and get up at 4 a.m. and write at Dunkin’ Donuts.
In the last three months, I’ve been in Australia, South Africa, Montana, and the Standing Rock reservation.
The first reason I started traveling was financial. I wanted to write. I’d work as a traveling salesman and take my money, $10,000, and go to Chile to write.
What a luxury of time and money to be able to write in the dark without the pressure of money and competition, without anyone of judging the quality of the work aside from myself.
That is the foundation of my writing practice. The years I spent writing by myself without needing to make money.
But when I was writing this book, it became an example of writing coinciding with my real identity in the world and the two exploding. When I realized that I wanted to write about the WTO, it exploded and I realized I could write about all the feelings when I was traveling. All of that could be articulated in the form of the novel. When I started writing this in 2009, this was before Ferguson, Garner, and Black Lives Matter, so I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by the reaction. I’ve toured the world for this book. This has less to do about protest and more to do with the theme of redefining home.
One of the reasons we are starving to redefine home is that we are starting to realize that our lives intersect with people across the world. I care about people I met in South Africa like they are my family.
We are starting to realize that our lives are very different from the lives of 90 percent in the world. Even here, middle class life is materially rich. All of us are aware of that now. I am aware that the shirt I am wearing right now was made in a sweatshop.
Kristen and Mikelyn: We like the phrase you used earlier about the whole world being at this WTO protest.
Sunil: I was really interested in the protest itself, but all the countries in the world were there for the meetings, and I realized I can use that as a jumping-off point. The protests were window-dressing for what I really wanted to talk about—globalization. The world is so much smaller these days but also much bigger too.
We know more about other people’s lives all over the globe and it is much bigger because the topography of lived experience is very uneven.
One of the things that really struck me when I was traveling is that we don’t just live in different countries—we live on different planets.
People living in Guatemala in shacks made out of salvaged wood might as well be living on another planet. This is profoundly different in other ways than mine. The other thing that is exciting is the commonalities.
Kristen and Mikelyn: We were wondering that since you wrote and lost 600 pages—
Sunil: 604 pages.
Kristen and Mikelyn: What was your process with that? What was your process in rewriting? Did you build on your previous draft or was it like starting anew from a clean slate?
Sunil: When I lost it, I spent three months just watching TV and numbing myself out. And then it started bubbling up in my head again. My first reaction was: Fuck—I am going to write it again. I can’t get away from it!
I started recreating it from notes. That was the most boring and painful experience I ever had. Not only had I written it, but I knew how long it would take to rewrite it. I tore up the notes and started again. That was the best gift I ever had. It allowed me to reimagine the decisions I’d made about that book.
It was a very postmodern pastiche type of book.
Kristen and Mikelyn: What do you feel that you lost or kept?
Sunil: What can you do? I remember this scene with Madeline Albright eating cereal. But what can you do?
Keya: What kind of cereal was she eating?
Sunil: Corn Flakes.
Kristen and Mikelyn: Was the first draft book more fitting in terms of your style?
Sunil: I feel this book is more my style, more mature.
Kristen and Mikelyn: More authentic.
Sunil: Yes, more authentic. It’s much closer to what I really feel. One of the blocks we as writers experience is the psychological block. It took me a long time to get past the sensor that made me feel it should be funny. There is a line in the book: “Care too much and the world will kill you cold.” It took me a year of drafts to finally understand that the sarcasm and satire in the first draft were a defense for me, in that situation. So the novel moved into a place that risks sentimentality but one of raw emotion. I’m proud of that, to be honest. I don’t think we get a lot of books that have that. I tried to leave that in there, even though it is embarrassing at times.
Kristen and Mikelyn: Your style sounds very lyrical. It kept connecting with spoken-word poetry and that rawness, presence, and ferocity and engagement with the audience. I think that sincerity really rings through.
Sunil: I didn’t mean to do that, and I actually realized recently that my roommate in New York was a slam poet. I found a reel with his slam poetry. We were sitting there watching slam poetry, and I realized that this is what I was doing in the novel. I did write this book to be read. I read it out loud at least five times all the way through. I used an app that would read it to me. I edited more by listening to it out loud than I did by reading it. It all made sense. I wouldn’t necessarily do that with another book, but this is a book that is about protest and moves into a book about love. That should be shouted and lyrical.
Kristen and Mikelyn: Yes, and stick in your ear the way music does.
Sunil: With rhythm and repetition. And it’s all because it’s very oral.
Kristen and Mikelyn: Even our society’s preference for the written word over the oral word is a white phenomenon, and you subvert that.
Sunil: I had a very deep sense of anti-respectability politics. In respectability politics only some voices in a certain tone in a certain language can speak, and other voices aren’t respected. That is true for political discourse, for protesters, and it’s certainly true for writers. I didn’t realize that I would actually get published. I wrote this in my room. I was just banging the keys. I didn’t realize I would be talking about this with you all!
I think that is why a second book might be so terrifying. You lose your absolute anonymity.
What is the Beckett quotation? “Fail better.”
Kristen and Mikelyn: I was really curious about the Standing Rock protest, especially in relation to the content of your novel. Can you describe your experience there? How do those two experiences speak to each other? Did learning from that help you understand this experience?
Sunil: I went to the reservation and the water protectors, and my friend wrote me and said, “Does it feel familiar?”
I said, “Yeah, how did you know? Why would it feel familiar?”
He said, “Remember you wrote a book about that?”
I remember coming over the hill into camp and seeing the campfires spreading all the way down from the Cannonball all the way to the Missouri River. You are coming across the largest gathering of Native Americans since Wounded Knee, which is profound. But what was familiar was the vibe of what it means to be in a protester and activist camp.
The book gave me a newfound respect for people who are willing to put their bodies on the line—quite literally in front of the tanks of capitalism. There was a photo that inspired the whole book that I found when I was doing research. I found a photo of a woman on her knees with blood on her head. I wondered what would cause her to go into the streets and get tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed for the rights of people she doesn’t know.
Before that I was cynical about protest. I still have doubts about protest and whether it is effective and about the liberal white protest. I can have those intellectual reservations and still feel the courage that it takes to go do that.
Kristen and Mikelyn: That definitely comes from a place of empathy.
Sunil: I was called to go to Standing Rock, and they are a very brave people. It will become an absolute national issue about what is the future of energy in our country. I totally respect that and love that it is happening.
I am more invested in a pro-active political approach. I think urban gardens are revolutionary. I think alternative medicine and bicycles are revolutionary. I can think of ten thousand examples. I think not celebrating your love for your boyfriend or girlfriend on Valentine’s Day by buying a bear is revolutionary. That is why I am a novelist and not an activist.
Kristen and Mikelyn: Going back to empathy, I love how multidimensional each character is and how the narratives overlap. Bishop and Victor show an overlap.
Sunil: It was an accident. There were ten characters. When I first sent this out to agents, there were ten characters. Victor and Bishop were characters. Bishop had a dilemma of whether to teargas these 50,000 protestors.
Victor had a father named Miles, who had a great emotional story, but he had no plotline and just stood in the intersection and cried about his son.
In edits, I realized that I was getting in my own way. It is so obvious the father and Bishop were one character, but I thought it would be a cliché to have a father and son who were police chief and protester. The father and Bishop each had half of a story, so it was an easy edit to bring them together.
So much of the time, I was getting in my own way. The other secret of writing a novel is that you sit down at your desk six days a week, 52 weeks a year, for six years, and it’s only 300 pages, so you spend a lot of time with that thing.
Kristen and Mikelyn: Do you have anything you are working on now?
Sunil: I am writing essays, and I am also working on a TV project. Producers are interested, and it is exciting to me, because it is working the same character and plot and story muscles. TV is so much more about character interactions than a novel is. I am growing as a writer without having to write sentences because I think I may have broken the bone that writes sentences. I don’t know if I can write those sentences again.
I think the subject dictates what the sentences are going to look like. I can write in different registers and in different voices, and I think the next time I write a novel it will be in a different voice with different syntax and diction than this. I have different registers, but I don’t hear the next one yet.
Kristen and Mikelyn: Your style is so sound-based and even the way you describe writing sounds so musical. Do you play musical instruments?
Sunil: I play the piano and guitar. I think that art and language drive most writers.
I love images, and I love film, but I have black marks on paper.
For me, the absolute truth is that I find my home in my writing.
By: Kristen Buehner and Mikelyn Rochford with Keya Mitra