The Beating Heart of Protest

Donald Trump’s presidency has ushered in a new era of protests, with people flooding the streets to resist his agenda. In just six months we’ve seen the Women’s March, the March for Science, the Not My President March, the March for Truth, and the first ever protest in space, by the Autonomous Space Agency Network—along with many others.

Sunil Yapa wonderfully captures the visceral experience of a protest, albeit one that turns violent, in his debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. It’s November 30, 1999, when tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization conference at the city’s convention center.

Wisely, Yapa appears to have listened to this passage from Ursula K. Le Guin’s book, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Long Navigator or the Mutinous Crew: “Teachers trying to get school kids to write clearly, and journalists with their weird rules of writing, have filled a lot of heads with the notion that the only good sentence is a short sentence. This is true for convicted criminals.” She goes onto say, “To avoid long sentences and the marvelously supple connections of a complex syntax is to deprive your prose of an essential quality.”

Yapa demonstrates that essential quality with long sentences that create the sensation of being swept up and carried along by a crowd, and sometimes the feeling of claustrophobia—of being surrounded on all sides, unable to move. The long sentence doesn’t allow for easy escape. And that, too, is part of the protest experience.

There were people hollering from every corner, marching people of all shapes and sizes, all body types and hairdos, an assortment of clothing choices and fashion accessories to express their personalities, and goddamn, fuck the protests? No, no, no.

In the above sentence, Yapa starts with an independent clause, “There were people hollering from every corner,” and grows it by adding free modifying phrases that refer back to the initial clause. The modifiers add precision, so the reader begins to see more clearly the people who are at the protest. Yapa also takes the opportunity to add rhythm and sound and parallelism. While we are being propelled forward via specificity, we also backtrack, because the modifiers point back to the opening independent clause. There is a flowing and ebbing movement, advancing to a new position and then pausing—which, for me, is the experience of marching in a protest.

Yapa uses the same technique to define his characters.

This woman with ambiguously light brown skin, with green eyes as bright as any sea, who at one time ran a sort of illegal animal shelter behind her off-the-grid house on an unnamed island beyond the city, who journeyed here with four friends in an Econoline van, the four of them eating sandwiches of sprouts and beans, this pretty girl in laced black boots who wore black jeans and a loose white shirt, the sleeves rolled to the shoulder like some kind of back-alley tough—she had the kindest of smiles, a smile which creased her mouth and lit those green eyes and which you could see were she not currently wearing a full-face black gas mask.

Each modifier makes this woman, named Kingfisher, more specific. We are inundated and overwhelmed by her. As she becomes more visible, Yapa uses the long sentence (and relative clauses) to weave in her history, and, as a result, we are propelled backward into the past. Both the content and the structure of this sentence have an ebb and flow.

Yapa’s long sentences also carry more information, which creates density and raises the stakes. Here, we are in the point of view Police Chief Bishop, who has been charged with ensuring the delegates are safely delivered to the convention center.

He had scheduled nine hundred on-duty officers. Now they were looking at upward of fifty thousand protesters in the street and four hundred delegates—four hundred delegates from one hundred and thirty five countries who may or may not speak English—to safely shepherd from the Sheraton Hotel to their meeting at the convention center.

By repeating “four hundred,” Yapa draws attention to that number, increasing the weight of responsibility, and increasing it further with the additional information about the many countries that are represented and the delegates’ potential lack of English. The parenthetical slows the sentence down, and the reader experiences, as if it were happening right now, the chief’s dawning sense of the problem—he doesn’t have enough officers to help him.

Throughout the novel, with his long sentences, Yapa mimics the energy of the protest, with its ebb and flow, its sense of containment and suffocation, and its overwhelming stimuli. You are swept up and stalled, you are exhilarated and suffocated, as the novel plunges you into the beating heart of protest.

Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

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