Empathy is a Radical Act: An Interview with Sunil Yapa
Harvard Book Store's New Voices in Fiction series, presented with GrubStreet, invites hotly anticipated debut novelists to talk about their work and their writing process. This Tuesday, January 19th, we're welcoming debut author Sunil Yapa. His new release, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, described by Colum McCann as "a symphony of a novel," is set during the chaotic World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, 1999, which began peacefully and descended quickly into violence. The New York Times said of the book that "Yapa shines in the thickness of the here-and-now, amid the gas, fear, courage and flawed humanity of the street battle." Yapa's novel follows seven characters, among them police officers, protestors, a young homeless runaway, and a Sri Lankan delegate, over the course of one chaotic, life-altering afternoon.
We caught up with Sunil in advance of his Tuesday appearance to talk writer-to-writer about craft, empathy, the magic of novels, and just how long it takes to figure out what on earth it is that you're doing.
Let’s talk a little about craft and process.
Sure. I write on the blank side of the paper—I find that’s the best side to write on.
That’s actually not true! Oh my god, I just realized I lied. Sorry, I’ve totally screwed up your interview. This is a big part of my process: after composing on the computer, I print everything out on landscape paper and make the margins huge so that the text is only on one side, and then I fill the other side with handwritten comments. So, I actually write on the side with the typing on it!
I’m jealous of visual artists, because I like having ink on my hands after writing. I like the stack of paper—some physical reminder that I’ve been making art.
There’s a distinct musicality to your prose. Is that something you pay close attention to?
First and foremost, I pay attention to language. It’s the reason I fell in love with reading; it’s the reason I fell in love with writing. I pay attention to language and I also try not to be too precious about it. You don’t want to sacrifice meaning for sound, and I’m so in love with the sound of sentences that sometimes, I’ll write a phrase that is nonsense, but it’s pretty nonsense. And you have to be tough with yourself about those sentences.
Meaning precedes beauty?
It has to, yeah.
Even so, your love of sound is evident on the page.
Every one of those sentences has been read aloud, multiple times; it’s a big part of my process. I have an app on my phone that reads documents, and I would put the whole book into that. When I was driving or on a plane, I’d listen to it maybe five or six times all the way through, and then read it aloud myself. You really hear a rhythm, and I like to break the rhythm, too. But this is not just an attempt to show off—very beautiful, literary language has lost some of its meaning, and it’s one of the writer’s jobs to restore language to its original power. Language almost has a physical force; when you read poetry, it’s like a punch that you feel in your solar plexus. So I was looking for a way, in prose, to restore some of the meaning to sentences that you might otherwise skim over.
In an interview for BookPage, you said you really wanted the novel to be a page-turner, too.
Yes, the first love is language, and my second love is story. I grew up reading Stephen King and Tom Clancy, and I loved that feeling of losing track of time when you’re reading a book. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s magic—these black marks on white paper that start a dream in your head. I think that’s magical.
Do you think there’s a false distinction made between literary fiction and “genre” fiction, which we tend to associate with the idea of a “page-turner”?
I’m not that into categories. I think as artists and writers, one of our training sessions in the creative gym should be to go out and try to destroy a category, like the distinction made between supposedly high-brow literary fiction and low-brow genre fiction. To the writer, a story is a story. I don’t know how you would make different decisions depending on whether you’re in one genre or another. You’re just trying to write the most honest thing possible. As far as categories go, I knew I was going to try and write the literary page-turner. Why not? Dennis Lehane does that; a lot of people do that. Story and interesting language are not mutually exclusive.
It’s a marketing distinction, not a creative one.
That’s it, yeah. I’m not mad about it, but it’s for bookstores and publicists, and that’s fine. But as a writer, you can’t get caught up in that stuff.
The book is based around the World Trade Organization protests, an event that took place seventeen years ago. In cultures influenced by the internet age, there’s a huge emphasis on instantaneous response—we experience an event, and then we immediately set about creating cultural material in response to that event.
Even while it’s ongoing, with live tweeting.
Exactly. Did it ever worry you, the decision to set a novel seventeen years in the past?
It did. The funny this is, as a writer—as opposed to a critic, or a publicist—you don’t necessarily think about that when you start a project, or at least I was too naive to think about it. It was two years in before I realized, oh my god, I’m writing a recent historical novel? What is that? What have I done? And it was the same thing with the characters—how many characters? What am I doing? But you’re in too deep at that point.
It really worried me, but it’s both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that when I went to do research, there was a huge amount of material. There’s an archive in the basement at the University of Washington, twenty-five boxes of first-hand accounts—diaries that people sent in, a box of VHS tapes. When I was trying to write the police, I went into the city archives and found recordings of police scanner traffic from all five days of the riot. If I had chosen to write about, let’s say, the Paris student riots in ’68, I wouldn’t have found those resources.
The curse part of it was that because all that material was there, I had to be accurate and faithful. People who experienced that event are still alive, obviously. It’s a very difficult thing as a novelist to walk the line between accurate one-to-one representation and your obligation to your imagination, and to theme, and to the larger connections and associations that present themselves.
I was also trying to find a balance between an ensemble cast that was manageable for the reader to engage with, and an attempt to give a sense of the whole protest. Seven points of view was almost too many. I had ten at one point, and I had sixty at one point, which was definitely too many. It turns out that we read fiction because we emotionally engage with characters, and you can’t do that with sixty, which took me four years and six hundred pages to learn. I wanted to be accurate to individual experience, but I also wanted these seven people to be representative of the whole.
Have you had any feedback from people who were there?
Quite a lot. My editor Lee Boudreaux and I took a trip out to Seattle in October and almost everyone we met with had been in the protest in some form or another. They thought it was very accurate. I also had the incredible good luck of rooming with Tennessee Jones, who was another student at Hunter College. He’s an incredible writer and he’s also an activist who was at the protests. He was my first reader. Absolutely all the errors are mine, for sure, but some of the truths are his.
In an interview for the Rumpus, you said the book was about empathy, and that empathy is a radical act. Do you see empathy as the fundamental project of fiction, and is there a meta-fictional quality to the book in that sense?
I didn’t realize that, to be honest, which is weird because I studied with Colum McCann and that’s sort of his core philosophy, but I didn’t totally understand it—I didn’t understand the consequences and implications of practicing empathy as a radical act. Because it’s not just about me depicting protestors who are being empathetic with world citizens, protesting to support working conditions in Bangladesh. I as the writer am allowed no easy villain. I have to practice empathy even with acts as disgusting or as distasteful as the police’s might at first have seemed. There’s a famous photo from the protests of a police officer pepper-spraying someone in the face from six inches away, and one of someone shooting a tear gas canister from a foot away. And I’m trying to understand why in the world they would do this, because they’re not monsters. In my mind, that must have been the worst moment in those cops’ lives. I had to ask myself, what happened so that more or less ordinary people allowed themselves to make such inhumane decisions. What could possibly account for that?
It reminds me a little of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye—we spend a short period of time in the mind of a rapist, which is such a challenging place to be as a reader.
Yes, that’s it. Eudora Welty wrote a story from the perspective of a white supremacist, and it’s wild, and it’s deeply empathetic, and you can imagine it must have been a very strange experience to write it. It’s funny the truths that you uncover, even if they’re uncomfortable.
And if empathy is a radical act, then writing, too, becomes a radical act.
That’s exactly right. People ask me, is the book political, and I say, to be honest, I don’t think so. But if compassion is political, then yeah. If trying to understand someone else’s point of view, if trying to live someone else’s experience is political, then yeah, it’s a political book. But I think that’s what we’re doing when we read—trying to live someone else’s experience.
You also mentioned that your dual ethnicity gives you a double vision, and that your identity can shift depending on whether you’re in mainstream white culture or Sri Lankan culture. How has that shaped you as a writer?
That’s the easy way to explain it, but I don’t think it’s as straight forward as, when I’m in Sri Lankan culture I feel white and when I’m in white culture I feel Sri Lankan. It’s much more fluid than that. The double consciousness is about this perpetual outsider-insider status; it’s a bit of a magic act, and it’s really what, as writers, we train ourselves to do. I was lucky enough—or unlucky enough—to get trained in it just by the nature of my ethnicity. I always felt both a part of things and apart from things. Your observer brain is always on. I remember being a little kid and my parents fighting over whether it was proper to eat with a fork or eat with your hands. As a kid observing those moments, you realize that the cultural norms aren’t set. That got imprinted on me from a young age, and to be free from cultural norms is great for a writer.
Do you have a perspective on the current conversation about the lack of diversity in publishing?
To be honest, I think the most important social category to talk about in terms of writing and reading is class. It takes a long time to write a novel, and it’s very difficult to figure out how to pay for your life while you’re doing that. I wouldn’t say that reading is a luxury activity, but I would say that reading novels is something that takes a lot of time, and if you’re working two jobs, you may not have the time or energy to read novels, either. That’s a huge generalization, but certainly writing a novel takes a lot of time and is very difficult financially, and one of the first things to recognize is, because of that, publishing and writing are very much middle class occupations. The lack of diversity, if we’re talking about ethnic diversity, starts there, but I also think there’s a lack of variety in perspectives from different class backgrounds, from white Americans too.
I’m glad you raise class as a category; I haven’t seen that become a huge part of the conversation yet.
In America, we really like to believe that everyone is free to be upwardly mobile, and I don’t think that’s quite how it works.
When I read those conversations about diversity, of course I love the effort to publish and review more women, more people of color, women of color, writers from the LGBTQ community. I think that’s incredible. But the first thing that defines the lack of diversity is class.
What are you reading?
Right now, The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee. The other book I’m really excited to read is Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You Charlie Freeman. She’s a Boston native, too. I’ve read pieces of it and she is so good, so smart about race, and such an incredible fiction writer—really beautiful language and characters. I can’t wait to read that.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sunil Yapa received his MFA in Fiction from Hunter College in New York City in 2010, where he worked with two-time Booker Prize winning author Peter Carey, and the 2009 National Book Award winner Colum McCann. While at Hunter, Sunil was twice selected as a Hertog Fellow, working as a research assistant for Zadie Smith (Changing My Mind). He is the recipient of the 2010 Asian American Short Story Award, sponsored by Hyphen Magazine and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York, and has received scholarships to The New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, The Norman Mailer Writers’ Center in Provincetown and The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Margins, Hyphen Magazine, The Tottenville Review, Pindeldyboz: Stories that Defy Classification, and others.
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.
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Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown