The art of protest marches in fiction

'We seek a world in which there is room for many worlds.'

 |  4-minute read |   12-07-2017
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In the wake of the #NotInMyName and farmers' protests in India, with news filtering in of #WelcomeToHell demonstrations at Hamburg's G20 summit as well as Turkey's #JusticeMarch, I found myself reaching for a debut novel that had slipped to the back of the to-be-read stack. A work that was greeted upon publication in 2016 by Colum McCann as a "literary Molotov cocktail".

Sunil Yapa's Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist is set on the streets of Seattle in 1999, when more than 40,000 people came together to derail the World Trade Organisation ministerial conference. The novel zooms in and out of the hearts and minds of those protesting as well as those maintaining order during the "Battle for Seattle", one of the first anti-globalisation rallies. As such, it's not as much a protest novel as it is a novel that literally deals with a protest.

sunil-yapa_071217041731.jpgSunil Yapa's Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist. Photo: Instagram/elisfilka

Street-level activism has shown up in fiction before, in varying degrees and viewpoints. A few offer a broad sweep, such as Hari Kunzru's My Revolutions, in which a domesticated radical in the late '90s looks back at his time of protests in '60s and '70s England. There's also Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens, which ambitiously covers 80 years of left-wing crusading in the United States.

Others, such as Yapa's novel, are more specific to a time and place, across a spectrum of engagements. The Saturday of Ian McEwan's Saturday is the day of the demonstration in London against the 2003 invasion of Iraq; Turkish writer Emrah Serbes' The King of Taksim Square is set during Istanbul's Gezi Park protests of 2013; a sequence in Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness lampoons many of the leading players of Delhi's 2011 anti-corruption rallies; and the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown plays a haunting role in Madeleine Thien's Booker-longlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Fiction writers from the Arab world, too, have used approaches from the satiric to the brutally realistic to capture the spirit of their uprisings. The latest of the lot, Omar Hamilton's The City Always Wins, covers such protests from a podcaster's point of view, with the central character recording stories of demonstrators, from Egypt's 2011 elections to General Sisi's assumption of power.

Almost all of the pages of Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, however, stay focused on the streets, with memories of other times occasionally woven in to flesh out characters' lives. It's a symphony of seven voices: some protesters, some policemen, and one WTO delegate from Sri Lanka. This braided perspective reflects "the faces of a part of American life that was passing away, if not already gone, the belief that the world could be changed by marching in the streets".

madeleine-thien---do_071217041854.jpgThe 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown plays a haunting role in Madeleine Thien's Booker-longlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

How much of it is art, and how much protest? Polemic, especially if strongly felt, has a way of overshadowing all else. It's useful to keep in mind New Yorker writer Alexandra Schwartz's observation on Grace Paley: her "unwavering trust in the power of the collective was essential for her activism, as her clear-eyed affection for the foibles and fallibility of the individual was essential for her art".

Yapa is savvy enough not to paint the situation in black and white; the leading figures are crafted to emerge as a mix of the two. Their vulnerabilities and pretensions, coupled with their courage and commitment, make the novel absorbing and forceful for the most part.

There are, however, descents into sentiment and coincidence. The father of one of the protesters, for example, turns out to be the chief of police, which inevitably leads to a confrontation that puts one in mind of Rostam and Sohrab. At other times, epiphanies turn out to be too easily earned.

the-ministry_0606170_071217042005.jpgA sequence in Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness lampoons many of the leading players of Delhi's 2011 anti-corruption rallies.

What is powerful is Yapa's description of the mood on the streets, with its intermingling of fear and hope. Especially so with real-life details such as the way in which protesters use plastic pipes to link their arms together, or the subsequent beatings and use of pepper spray.

Unresolved grievances, deprivation, identification with a group, upholding standards of justice: people come out to protest because of interlinked reasons. In the words of Mexico's Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos which appear on one of the posters held aloft in the novel: "We seek a world in which there is room for many worlds".

Yapa, and others like him, dissect and amplify the voices of those who raise fists and hearts to make us hear "the million-voiced ocean roar of Calcutta or Caracas booming from their angry mouths, echoing in the canyons of smoked glass and steel".

Also read - On style: Prose of Arundhati Roy, Meena Kandasamy and others


Sanjay Sipahimalani Sanjay Sipahimalani @sansip

Literary critic

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