the next writer in the series: january 1, 2019

I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.

On the first of each month,
a guest writer
shares
how he or she spends the day.

photo by Gilbert Chong

January 1, 2018: Sunil Yapa

Imagine this. You’ve been working on your first novel for years. You finish it while living in Chile–604 pages of it–and you don’t have internet or a printer. When you come back to the US, you leave your backpack, with your laptop in it, in your hotel room. And the backpack is stolen. So…

[A]fter losing it — and three months of being pretty depressed and trying to forget it ever happened — I had to start over. The original manuscript had 50 or 60 characters, which would have never worked. I can’t figure out why it took me so long to realize that if there are 60 characters, I’m not going to care about any one of them. So when I went back to work on it, I thought, “Who are the characters I really care about?” And I wrote a completely different book than the first one. So in the end, I’m very, very glad I lost that first manuscript. [from the Chicago Tribune]

Less than six years after that 604-page manuscript was stolen, Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, arrived in the world. It was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, a Washington Post Notable Book, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick. The novel takes place in one day and is set amidst the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.

Caring about others was the reason for the WTO protests and is a theme of the book. And it’s the reason the novel must focus on characters. Here are three of the seven Sunil cared enough about to resurrect. The first one we meet is nineteen-year-old Victor.

The match struck and sputtered. Victor tried again. He put match head to phosphate strip with the gentle pressure of one long finger and the thing sparked and caught and for the briefest of moments he held a yellow flame. Victor–curled into himself like a question mark, a joint hanging from his mouth; Victor with his hair natural in two thick braids, a red bandanna folded and knotted to hold them back; Victor–with his dark eyes and his thin shoulders and his cafecito con leche skin, wearing a pair of classic Air Jordans, the leather so white it glowed–imagine him how you will because he hardly knew how to see himself.

Chapter 2 introduces us to forty-four-year-old John Henry. This time we are not looking at him but are inside him. We get in his head before we know anything else about him.

John Henry stood in the crowd inhaling them through every pore, perfectly at rest, perfectly at peace. My people. They smelled of onion and cigarette and sex, the human animal musk of sixty beautiful human bodies beneath their beautiful blue tarps and he raised his arms to the sky and breathed them deep. Around him they marched and they danced; they chanted and they sang. he felt their voices buzzing in his chest.

In Chapter 3 we meet Officer Park. The initial paragraph is short and quick, unlike the first paragraphs of the earlier two chapters.

Officer Timothy Park knocked his riot stick against the stiff polycarbonate of his armored leg, producing a hefty sort of clack and whack, which, right this second, he found immensely satisfying as he sucked a black coffee with fifteen sugars and watched the way they walked, heads high, arms swinging, and thought: Why in holy hell do these people look so happy?

Wondering what characters didn’t make the cut? Madeline Albright, President Clinton, the riot itself. Wondering about the other characters who did make the cut? Read the book!

In July Sunil released an album in collaboration with the poet Brian Turner (The Interplanetary Acoustic Team). 11 11 (Me, Smiling) incorporates the words and poems of Brian’s late wife, Ilyse Kusnetz. Check out this article in Poets&Writers about the project in which Brian refers to Sunil’s “gorgeous, soulful guitar work.” The album is available on Spotify (and elsewhere).

More fun facts about Sunil: He’s lived in Greece, Chile, Guatemala, London, Montreal, California, New York, Houston, Seattle… His book was written on seventeen different kitchen tables. And his father, a Marxist professor of geography, immigrated to the US from Sri Lanka in 1964.

Come back on JANUARY 1st to read how SUNIL YAPA spends his days.

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