In his debut novel, “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist,” Sunil Yapa re-creates clashes between protesters and police that rocked 1999 Seattle during a meeting of the World Trade Organization. Yapa appears Jan. 30 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

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‘Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist’

by Sunil Yapa

Lee Boudreaux/Little Brown, 320 pp., $26

In late 1999, mass protests of the World Trade Organization meetings on global trade became a notorious battle in Seattle, with lasting repercussions.

The city swelled with an estimated 60,000 anti-WTO demonstrators, who voiced labor, environmental and other concerns about secretive “free trade” agreements. Initially peaceful, things turned violent as protesters blocked delegates from 125 nations from entering meetings at the Washington State Convention Center. The fallout: hundreds of arrests, many charges of police brutality, numerous lawsuits.

When the tear gas settled, local businesses had sustained an estimated $3 million in damage. Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper had resigned. And Mayor Paul Schell’s political career lay in ruins.

Author appearance

Sunil Yapa

The author of “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” will appear at 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or

In his ambitious debut novel, Sunil Yapa (who lived briefly in Seattle, after the protest) re-imagines the WTO riots with a wide lens and visceral intensity.

Aptly titled after a popular slogan from a woodcut crafted by Dalia Sapon-Shevin during the demonstrations, the novel unfolds on a single, fateful afternoon, as the standoff between police and demonstrators erupts into mayhem. Alternating the impressions and perspectives of seven participants with different agendas, Yapa takes some liberties with fact to create a thrilling, prismatic epic.

First we’re dropped into the stoned, whirling consciousness of Victor, a teenage drifter and pot dealer who stumbles upon a circle of committed protesters. Led by Kingfisher, an eco-activist on the run, and John Henry, a staunch proponent of nonviolent civil disobedience, the group prepares to link their arms together with plastic pipe, forming a human chain to prevent delegates from entering the convention center.

Facing off against the protesters are a cadre of Seattle police officers including Julia (known as Yu) and Park. Yu and Park’s actions are restrained at first. But as the cumulative effects of fear, exhaustion and poor leadership from top brass get to them, they and other frustrated cops attempt to clear the streets with beatings, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. The well-documented frenzy is described here in sickening detail.

The (fictional) Seattle head of police Chief Bishop vacillates between principled reserve and punishing overreaction. Not the least of his concerns is Victor, his estranged prodigal son, whom Bishop believes is in the teeming crowd of protesters. Father and child encounter one another on the street dramatically, in the book’s disturbing and powerful denouement.

Yapa doesn’t limit “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” to a two-sided battle. The initially quieter ruminations of a thoughtful government minister from Sri Lanka are an enlightening counterpoint to the other forces at play. Bemused, then victimized by the furor, he’s in town to urge President Clinton, an expected attendee, to support Sri Lanka’s application for WTO membership.

He believes joining that international financial club, where massive global trade deals are made behind closed doors, is essential to Sri Lanka’s economic survival. When falsely arrested and thrown in with the protesters, the diplomat hears out their viewpoint — and gives them a Third World perspective.

All of Yapa’s protagonists have a say, a psychology, a backstory, a worldview. His multi-stranded narrative throbs with sounds and smells, poetry and memory (occasionally to excess). And he expertly cranks up the tensions that led to the violent clashes, and later, property destruction by a contingent of radical anarchists (who are not a major focus here).

Firsthand observers (and participants) of the real 1999 battle in Seattle may wince at some of the book’s creative liberties, particularly vis a vis public figures like Stamper and Schell. But Yapa’s melding of fact and fiction, human frailty and geopolitics, is a genuine tour-de-force, and an exciting literary debut.